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19 January 2024
world rugby awards 2023
Still sporting the cuts and scrapes from the final, Ardie Savea smiles for the cameras in Paris with his award.

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.

Ardie Savea.

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.

Kiwis are funny when it comes to the All Blacks. For one, we love to criticise them, but we just don’t like others to criticise them. Ardie Savea still has his critics, but it doesn’t smack of tall poppy syndrome. Rather it is because many old-school Kiwi rugby fans have this fixed idea in their heads of what a No 8 should be: a hard-driving, six-feet-five lineout winner who bleeds for the cause and is not averse to exercising the dark arts. So, a mix of Murray Mexted and ‘Buck’ Shelford with a bit of Zinzan Brooke thrown in. Well, I cannot say I’ve seen Savea throw a punch. Why would you in this day and age with a thousand cameras? But I have seen him explode off the back of a scrum and outstrip the blindside defence to set up his outsides. I have seen him win lineout ball and I have seen him scores tries with pace and guile as much as determination.

Yet people still harp on that he is not big enough to be a bonafide international No 8. He’s listed as 1.88m and 102kg but he might just be closer to 105kg. That does not make him the biggest No 8 around, for sure, but anyone who plays at his clip and with such dynamism can make it work. Yet his battle for universal acceptance goes on.

Mid-year, Jeff Wilson, usually an astute voice of reason on Sky’s The Breakdown, called for Savea to be used off the bench in Test rugby. Why would you bring your best player off the pine? It makes zero sense. And yet, there has been, since the retirement of Kieran Read in 2019, a belief that the balance of the All Blacks’ loose forward trio is not quite right with Savea at No 8. When Ian Foster anointed Cane as his skipper, it effectively meant Savea had to play No 8. It also meant you needed a certain type of player, a ball-winning bruiser, at blindside flanker. That man was Shannon Frizell, but he was not always able to be that man. It possibly didn’t help that Cane was outplayed by Dalton Papali’i for much of 2022, the All Blacks’ annus horribilis. Granted, the trio of Savea-Cane-Frizell may not be recalled as fondly as Shelford-Jones-A Whetton or Read-McCaw-Kaino, but there was much to like about it by the business end of the World Cup.

In the meantime, Savea had seen off all comers, such as Hoskins Sotutu (a multi-talented footballer who mysteriously fell off the pace in 2023), Luke Jacobson (an industrious defender better suited to the No 6 jersey) and Cullen Grace (whose time will come again if his body keeps up with his potential). But no one has seriously laid threat to Savea’s jersey and his mastery of the position, bearing in mind he was a brilliant No 7, has zoomed ahead since 2019.

His old All Blacks captain Read saw Savea’s early work as a supersub, a breakaway and an occasional No 6 or No 8. Some fans admired his work ethic and his attitude but took longer to be fully convinced he should be the man to succeed Read, one of the great All Blacks No 8s.

“He looks to me like he’s found real confidence in his ability to play longer and have more impact across the game. He’s been outstanding this season, a brilliant ball carrier. The key thing for Ardie is that he’s been able to do it way more consistently this year. It’s been awesome to watch,” says Read, who always felt that Savea had the ability to make a go of it as an All Blacks No 8, even back in 2019.

“Some of those games we won this year might not have gone our way if he hadn’t been on the field.”
Read feels that Savea could have even more influence on the game by exploding off the back of a scrum more often, especially now that the All Blacks have shored up that set-piece.

“He’s such a great player that he should potentially have more influence in the team, from my point of view. You bring your own flavour to No 8. He’s totally different to how I played there.”

That all-important loose forward balance means that Read agrees that Savea is the first name inked in, and then you build around him.

“In essence, Ardie’s your best in that trio and you mix around that. When Shannon’s playing well, that allows Ardie to do what he does best,” Read says.

He admits to also being a fan of Alldritt and Doris, two very different players to Savea.

“I love how Alldritt plays the game. He works really well and leads, makes the tough ball carries. Doris is similar.”

For all their qualities, neither Alldritt nor Doris possess Savea’s X-factor. We haven’t seen that mix of flair and mental toughness possibly since the days of Zinzan Brooke, though Read also had a wide skillset. But even ‘Zinny’ did not cement his place until he was 29 and had to win over many ‘Buck’ Shelford, and anti-Auckland, fans.

Read isn’t overly worried about the Savea critics.

“The proof is in the way he’s playing. People will always have their opinions, but get the right players around him and allow him to be the best version of himself on the field, then it works well for the team,” he says.

We don’t know exactly what role incoming All Blacks coach Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson will have for Savea.
What we do know is that Savea has just released a children’s book through One NZ (formerly Vodafone).
All Blacks fans will be praying neither of the bruising Savea-Cane duo gets too banged up in Japan. There is room for both of them in the All Blacks, as the last few years have shown. And there is always, always room for the best player in the world.

Savea still has much to achieve – a Rugby World Cup, for one. We’d love to see him in the Moana Pasifika colours in 2025 or 2026, something he has hinted at in the past. But imagine him in 2027 at Rugby World Cup in Australia, still firing off the back of the scrum, running hard all day and doing all in his power to conquer his final rugby frontier? The man himself is all about the team, though. Greatness will come, if it’s not here already.

HURRICANES: 12 games/8 tries
ALL BLACKS: 11 games/4 tries

Hurricanes 2013-23: 131 games/32 tries
All Blacks 2016-23: 81 Tests/24 tries
First-class 2013-23: 260 games/70 tries


March 3: Hurricanes v Rebels
So much for easing into the season.
That is not the Savea way. In just game two, he scored two tries and led a nuggety Hurricanes breakdown effort in the 39-33 win. His yellow card and subsequent throat-slitting gesture was out of character but a storm in the proverbial teacup. He owned the ‘slip-up’ after the game, but still copped a one-match ban.

May 13: Hurricanes v Moana Pasifika
The Hurricanes pounded Moana Pasifika in the capital to the tune of 71-22, and Savea ran in three tries in an irrepressible effort showcasing power, pace and guile. He loves Super Rugby and his presence will be sorely missed by that competition in 2024.

August 25: All Blacks v South Africa
Often it’s how you play in a losing cause.
Down on personnel at Twickenham, Savea rolled his sleeves up and manfully led the pack with Scott Barrett, even if it was like King Canute trying to stem the tide in the face of the firing Boks.

September 29: All Blacks v Italy (RWC)
This was the best rugby played by the All Blacks all season against a team some were worried could cause a shock.
Not with Savea in dynamic and ruthless mood.
‘Savea was like a coiled spring, scoring twice off lineouts, one of them a solo drive. He created the Mark Telea try with a long break and was a constant menace both with and without the ball. Savea made 12 carries for 128m, beat five defenders and made three offloads’ – this was how we saw it in our match review in the November issue.

October 14: All Blacks v Ireland (RWC QF)
Sam Cane took most of the plaudits in this one, and rightly so for a titanic defensive effort, but Savea was immense throughout the 80 minutes.
The All Blacks won a highly anticipated and hotly contested breakdown scrap, and Savea’s allround form was central to that.

October 28: All Blacks v South Africa (RWC F)
Some may recall Savea knocking on at the lineout that led to the Aaron Smith no-try, but it would be a shame if he was recalled just for that error in a gutsy display where he featured in some key moments.
He was the passive figure in the Siya Kolisi accidental head clash and the look of shock on his face when Wayne Barnes told him the Cane yellow card was upgraded to red was priceless. Savea sought to rally his men to the very last play, where he tried to keep the ball alive, to no avail.

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