Campbell Burnes tries to find the right words to describe a stellar year for the All Blacks’ No 8 and World Rugby’s player of the year.
What a year. What a player.
Can you believe he has just hit 30 years of age? It seems like only yesterday he went on the 2013 northern tour as an ‘apprentice’ to the All Blacks.
Now he has 81 Tests under his belt and is coming off a remarkable 2023 season in which he sometimes seemed to carry the All Blacks on his broad shoulders through turbulent times.
He played in 11 of the 12 Tests, and was subbed just once, by Tupou Vaa’i after 64 minutes of the Namibia walkover. That is astonishing when you consider that he plays in a high-impact, high-attrition position, and one of his fellow loose forwards was the All Blacks captain in all but four Tests in 2023. Savea was more than just a caretaker captain. He led by example and ran as hard at the end of the games as he did at the start. Big engine, big ticker. His influence, which has always been high since his 2016 Test debut, was palpable.
Savea seems to play with a controlled fury, his leg drive testament to a never say die attitude. He carries like he wants to run through a brick wall, but he can also zip through a gap and slip a ball on the fringes or in close. Then he’ll be jackling with strong body position in that dangerous set-up. Savea is a turnover merchant and an increasingly dominant tackler.
It was slightly surprising, though, that he won the World Rugby gong the night after the Rugby World Cup final – not because he didn’t deserve it, but because that award does not often go to a player on the losing side of a RWC decider. In 2011, Jerome Kaino was surely the best player at the World Cup, if not on the planet, but the award was handed to France’s captain Thierry Dusautoir, who scored in an inspired display in the final. Likewise in 2023, Pieter-Steph du Toit, player of the year in 2019, tackled his heart out against the All Blacks in Paris. But Savea got the nod.
Fair play to him. Before the tournament, Antoine Dupont was seen as the best rugby player on Earth. He may still be, but his jaw injury and France’s early exit scrubbed his chances. Media attention focused on the powerful Grégory Alldritt and Caelan Doris as the best No 8s going around. But Doris was pushed to the No 6 jersey in World Rugby’s Dream Team. Alldritt still performed well in France, but Savea shone, never more brightly than in the playoffs and when the chips were down in the final as the All Blacks faced 60 minutes without their skipper.
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