CAPE TOWN – Ardie Savea didn’t play against the Springboks in Wellington in this season’s Rugby Championship 16-all draw, but the explosive Hurricanes loose-forward will start against the Springboks in the World Cup opener next Saturday in Japan.
And his presence could change the result of the match.
Beauden Barrett, a two-time world player of the year, is considered the All Blacks greatest attacking threat, be it playing flyhalf or full-back, but Barrett insisted the most influential All Black was his Hurricanes teammate Savea, who in the past year has played blindside and openside flank for the All Blacks, as well as a starring role at No 8 for the All Blacks against Argentina.
“His work rate’s immense,” said Barrett. “The influence he is on a rugby game when it comes to the breakdown, but then you see him run around wingers on the edges. He is our most influential player in terms of work rate that we have at the moment and one of our most important players.”
Savea, since his provincial debut as an 18-year-old in 2012, has always been huge for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby, but the transfer to Test rugby stuttered and a year ago appeared to stall.
His loss of form and indifference in the role of impact player coincided with his older brother Julian’s fall-out with the All Blacks selectors.
The older Savea, brilliant in the 2015 World Cup-winning campaign, was retired as an international winger just two years later and now plays club rugby for Toulon in France’s Top 14.
The younger Savea resisted the lure of joining Julian in France and signed an extension to his All Blacks contract, which keeps him in New Zealand until the end of 2020.
His decision to commit to New Zealand rugby has come with reward in 2019, with coach Steve Hansen finally acknowledging Savea’s role as a starting option.
His impact off the bench was always guaranteed and he was sensational when replacing Sam Cane in the 35th minute of the 2018 Test against the Springboks in Pretoria.
Cane’s neck fracture ruled him out of rugby for a year and in those 12 months Savea started to find an extra gear.
It started in Pretoria and he combined with Richie Mo’unga to break the Springboks with a converted try in the 78th minute.
The All Blacks, trailing 30-13 with 15 minutes to go, would win 32-30.
Savea didn’t let up in 2019 and his form was irrepressible in Super Rugby.
He was making 36m in attack a match and being credited with five assists every time he played. His tackles per game ratio was 13 and his tackle success averaged 92%.
He primarily played openside flank for the Hurricanes but this year was a capable replacement at No 8 for All Blacks captain Kieran Read and most recently he was used in tandem with openside specialist Cane against the Wallabies in Perth and Auckland.
“We have known it for years, just how good he is,” says Barrett. “I’ve been fortunate enough to see that as a teammate with the ’Canes. It’s great that he is being started and that we’ve been able to see him for the full 80 minutes and not just in the last 30 minutes coming off the bench.
“If that’s the combination going forward, where he starts, then that’s going to be great for the All Blacks.”
Former All Blacks scrum-half Justin Marshall, a veteran of two World Cup campaigns and 81 Tests, insisted that Savea had to start for the All Blacks at the World Cup.
“The metres he is making through the middle are incredibly important to breaking down that aggressive defence because it gravitates players in toward the ruck and narrows them up,” says Marshall. “You need a strong ball carrier. The All Blacks definitely have to have him on the field and that will put pressure on the other two players in the loose-forwards who then have to complement him, including captain Kieran Read.
“For me, Ardie Savea simply has to be on the field, from the start to the finish.”
Another All Blacks great, Christian Cullen, believes the best working of the loose-trio of Read, Cane and Savea is to play Read at blindside flank and give Savea the No 8 jersey.
“Savea’s work rate is constant for the full 80 minutes,” said Cullen. “And Ardie off the back of the scrum, well, he is just unreal, dynamic and hard to stop.”
Savea’s rugby performances in 2019 have mirrored his life off the field.
He is a new dad to young Kolbe, was nominated as personality of the year at the 2019 Wellington Sports Awards and launched Ardie Savea Clothing, with the collection of T-shirts designed by Savea known as the “Wellbeing” range because it promotes the importance of communicating, having conversations and being oneself.
Savea is very vocal about creating positivity among people and has always said he wants to be for what he gave to society and not what he took.
He donates R100 of each T-shirt sold to the mental health initiative “I am Hope”, which focuses on what people in a good mental space can do to help those less fortunate.
Savea’s awareness of social issues doesn’t surprise his former school headmaster Kevin Carter, who described Savea as a damn hard worker and wonderful young man.
“Ardie captained Rongotai College 1st XV in 2011 and was also head prefect,” says Carter.
“I’ve been teaching in boys’ schools for 35 years and I’ve never come across anyone better than Ardie Savea in terms of all-round person.”
Savea is still a regular visitor to the school and famous for an assembly speech in which he told the pupils: “Don’t be the boy who has to be told to do something, be the man that just does it.”