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11 April 2023
super rugby pacific rd 1 highlanders v blues
Photo: GettyImages

Rieko Ioane looks relaxed and yet sharp at the Blues’ temporary training base of Gribblehirst Park.

It’s just down the road from Eden Park and he’s gearing up to face the Crusaders a few days later in a repeat of the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific final. These are the big games he feels that extra edge for, and Ioane has played plenty of big games at this level.

He’s closing in on 100 games for the Blues and, should he hit the mark (he was on 90 at the time of print), he would be the youngest at just 26. He ticked over to 26 on the day of the Crusaders game. Even Jordie Barrett, Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie, the next in line to be Super Rugby centurions, cannot top that at such a young age.

Ioane junior started the season on 86, well behind his brother Akira and also Patrick Tuipulotu, coincidentally all Ponsonby club men. If you factor in All Blacks rest periods and no injury breaks (touch wood), Ioane might hit the ton deep into the Super Rugby playoffs.

He’d love to reach it this season, regardless of whether he is a Blue again in 2024. His post-Rugby World Cup future was the subject of much conjecture last month. He and his agent were working through the renegotiations, but you get the feeling that, even if he did take the yen, he would be back one day to play for the team he signed with while finishing at Auckland Grammar School, a team he loves dearly.

I reel off a few other milestones that are looming for him, but joining a select group, that stands at just seven men, on 100 games for the franchise, is clearly what spins his wheels.

“The only one I really knew was coming up was my 100th for the Blues, so I’m definitely keeping tabs and God willing I can get that done this year,” he says.

“That 100th for the Blues would be the most special.”

All seven Blues centurions are forwards, and Akira and Tuipulotu have both stalled in the 90s with injury. Blues greats Carlos Spencer, Doug Howlett, Joe Rokocoko and Justin Collins all finished up in the 90s.

Rieko Ioane was on 48 tries for the Blues at the time of writing, just seven behind Howlett’s franchise record of 55. Joe Rokocoko, who started his Super Rugby career with a hiss and a roar in 2003, slowed to 39 tries. Joe Rock was more prolific for the All Blacks. Howlett was consistently prolific in blue and black.

“Those accolades are nice. Dougie has scored a lot of tries in all the teams he’s been in but my goals and motivations change, so I’m just looking to do the best for the team,” says Ioane.

The Blues are big on their history and legacy and honoured their 2003 champions at the Crusaders game last month. Ioane was just six when Xavier Rush lifted the trophy.

I put it to Ioane that his Blues career highlight might still be to come, with all due respect to the 2021 Trans-Tasman championship. He nods and smiles. Nothing more needs to be said.

Ioane has seen the Blues morph from a team that has struggled for respect to genuine championship contenders. Funnily enough, he was most prolific in the tough years, from 2017-19, when he was pinballing between the midfield and wing.

“We don’t ever want to get back there. It’s so cool to see these younger guys who come in and get to experience the Blues club now. Back then, we couldn’t beat any Kiwi sides for years,” he says.

He has nothing but praise for Tana Umaga, now back on the staff but who oversaw that 2016-18 era as head coach.

“In my eyes, he’s the greatest centre to play. In a proactive way, he gives us midfielders work-ons and clips. He’s keen to get us and the club moving forward. He’s awesome, I can’t speak highly enough of him.”

Ioane is now the best centre in the land. He’s not the finished product, and still suffers in comparison to Bruce Robertson, Joe Stanley and Conrad Smith, who were more silky distributors. Ioane is a penetrator, a runner, a finisher. He can break on the outside.

His combination with Roger Tuivasa- Sheck is developing nicely for the Blues, though Ioane has paid his penance of a few wines for not passing to RTS when a try was on against the Brumbies in Melbourne.

Is it easy enough to focus on the task at hand with the Blues in a Rugby World Cup year?

“In 2019, I thought I was going to go to the World Cup and then I had a drop in form, an injury, and nothing was guaranteed. All the other experienced players will tell you the same. You need to do a job for your club here because if you don’t you won’t be on the plane going to France. You are stuck at home watching it. So I have to prepare well every week to play the best footy I can for my club,” Ioane says...

That Crusaders game was his fourth straight. In 2022, he did not play more than four straight for the Blues. So how the All Blacks rest period is factored in is vital for the Blues.

“What’s different with our team is that we have so many All Blacks. If we all get a rest the same week, we don’t have a team to train with. Rangi (Leon MacDonald) has planned it all and it should work out nicely.”

As for those milestones, here’s another. Ioane was on 98 first-class tries as I wrote this. That places him behind only Julian ‘The Bus’ Savea (on 136) of active players in New Zealand. That would place Ioane in some rarefied company, topped by Sir John Kirwan on 199.

But few would have been just 26 when they raised the ton.

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