Written by Max Sharp.
In the 2015 Wellington Sevens, a competition that has since moved to Hamiton, the audience were given the shock of their life. Rieko Ioane, then aged just 17, had been selected for the All Blacks' Sevens side straight out of Auckland Grammar School and went on to be one of the tournament's biggest stars.
The younger brother of Akira Ioane, who had joined Auckland's NPC team by then, he was always going to have eyes on him. But with former Samoa lock, Eddie Ioane and former 4-test Black Fern, Sandra Wihongi, as his parents, rugby was always going to be a predisposition for the young athlete.
Rieko Ioane and All Blacks Assistant Coach, Brad Mooar, ahead of playing Ireland at Eden Park, 2022. Photo: Max Sharp.
The Rise of Rieko Ioane (2016-2018)
Ioane went on to make his debut for Auckland later that year, followed by the Blues in 2016; though his game time was limited due to selection in the New Zealand Sevens' Olympic Games campaign. Though the Olympics were ill-fated, a return to Auckland in red-hot form saw Ioane selected for the All Blacks, by Steve Hansen.
Scary thing about that debut? When replacing Israel Dagg, off the bench, against Italy, Ioane became the youngest-ever All Black since Jonah Lomu (19 years, 45 days), who is the all-time record-holder. Ioane was 19 years and 239 days old on debut, scoring a try to go with it. Despite encouragement from Ian Foster to keep Julian Savea on the wing for the British and Irish Lions series in 2017, Hansen made the bold move to put Ioane out of position, which worked splendidly.
Having amassed two nominations for World Rugby Player of the Year, 22 test caps and 22 test tries by the age of just 21, Ioane was almost certainly destined to break even more records. At one point, I even got carried away to the point of predicting Ioane would stay around until the 2031 Rugby World Cup (which can still perhaps be achieved) and go on to become the All Blacks' most-capped ever player with over 170 tests, while supplanting Doug Howlett's 49-try record, to reach 100 test tries.
The Fall of Rieko Ioane (2019-2020)
At this point of Ioane's career however, he proved he was indeed human, like most other athletes.
Though he was still able to play through a leg injury, he was a much slower sprinter in 2019. George Bridge and Sevu Reece started over Ioane, as the first-choice wingers for the ill-fated Rugby World Cup semi-final, while Ioane was restricted to just two starts in the competition. Having played such amazing rugby in the last three seasons, perhaps being overtaken by the Crusaders duo forced Ioane to reassess some priorities.
Having been just 22 years old for the 2019 tournament, Ioane was still the youngest player in the World Cup squad, with his Blues teammate, Sonny Bill Williams, the oldest player in the team aged 34.
We saw Ioane return to playing centre in 2020, as he had done as a high school student. After impressing in the position for the Blues and for the North Island against the South Island team, Ioane was placed in a midfield combination with Jack Goodhue, for the first All Blacks test of the 2020 season. This was against Australia, at Sky Stadium, Wellington, on the 11th October.
Sky Stadium, Wellington, just one hour before Ioane's infamous dropped ball incident. Photo: Mikayla Sharp.
Unfortunately, during the transition back to centre, many rugby fans found themselves bringing up their perceptions of Ioane's on-field and even off-field personality during the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Ahead of the first test, some had made complaints about Ioane's ego and even "arrogance".
Just ahead of the half-time whistle against Australia, Ioane was given a brilliant pass by Richie Mo'unga, but went ahead to drop it over the try line with his one-handed grounding. The result ended in a 16-16 draw, while Ioane didn't exactly display the instincts of a centre during the match. Subbed off in the 57th minute of this test, he went on to play a total of just 90 minutes in the 13 jersey for 2020, while even the Prime Minister of New Zealand poked fun at Ioane for the dropped ball.
Rieko Ioane botches a try at half-time against Australia, 2020. Footage owned by Sky Sports, New Zealand.
The Ressurrection of Rieko Ioane (2021-Present)
Before even adopting the moniker of "The Black Jersey", I did indeed have a channel on YouTube. One of my earliest videos saw me predict the possible downfalls of five Super Rugby players ahead of the 2021 season but thankfully, I was wrong about Rieko Ioane and David Havili in this video.
Though Havili and Anton Lienert-Brown were the most regular midfield pairing used by Ian Foster throughout the season, Ioane in fact played more minutes at 13 than Lienert-Brown this year; he accumulated 648 minutes at centre, compared to Lienert-Brown's injury-enforced 393 minutes in the jersey.
"Five Potential Super Rugby Aotearoa Player Downfalls in 2021"; a video in which I said 2021 would be career-defining for Rieko Ioane.
Ioane also scored 5 tries, from playing 13/15 tests for the season, bringing his career tally to 31. This places him amongst history's highest-ever try-scorers; he has now scored more test tries than Israel Dagg; the man who he replaced off the bench for his debut, all the way back in 2016.
Though many fans continued to complain that Ioane wasn't a centre, whilst also criticising his attitude too, Ioane at long last proved to us, that he is indeed a centre. This confirmation was in the final test match of 2021, against France.
Having had a bad game against Ireland the previous week, Ioane worked so well at getting teammates into space, making 2 offloads in the game, whilst the jet boots that made a 17-year-old Ioane so famous, remain ever-present; he scored a runaway try from 70 metres, after a brilliant turnover from Sam Whitelock.
Ioane's presence at centre continued for the Blues in 2022, he was voted as the league's Most Valuable Player by The Black Jersey's Instagram audience, amassing 49% of the vote, as well as 70% of the vote for Best Centre of the Season.
Ioane's impressive season stat sheet included 5 tries from 11 games, 799 metres run, 32 defenders beaten and 5 clean breaks off 72 carries, as well as 124 passes, 10 offloads, 3 try assists and also 91/107 tackles, for a season tackle percentage of 85%. This clearly lead to a re-call for the All Blacks.
With Anton Lienert-Brown not returning from another injury, until October this year, Ioane has now supplanted Lienert-Brown as the player with the most minutes in the 13 Depth Chart, while his total of 1255 test minutes (in three different jerseys) from 2020-2022, make Ioane the most indispensable player of the Ian Foster era.
What's perhaps even better to see is that the fall from grace has humbled Ioane and made him an even better person. Plenty of insiders speak of Ioane's humility, kindness and teamwork. He appeared to be a down-to-earth man as well, when I met him after a game recently.
Rieko Ioane directs the All Blacks backline ahead of a scrum against Ireland at Eden Park, 2022. Photo: Max Sharp.
The Future of Rieko Ioane (2022 - Present)
I massively overestimated Ioane's potential when he burst onto the scene at just 17 years old. However, he has sacrificed his rate of scoring test tries, to preserve his longevity in a black jersey. Outside backs always have to watch for the next up-and-comer there to take their jersey, unless they were the ever-present Mils Muliaina, perhaps the greatest defender to ever grace the 15 jersey. Having worn the sacred 11 jersey for the start of his career, Ioane looked to be in that position just a few short years ago.
But George Bridge, the man who supplanted Ioane as Steve Hansen's first-choice left winger, has now played his last test, this test in question was 2021, when Bridge was featuring against France, aged just 26 years old. All of the hype around becoming the highest-ever try-scorer for the All Blacks, is towards Will Jordan these days.
Max and Mikayla Sharp finally get a selfie with Rieko Ioane after watching him on television since 2015.
Jordan however, has yet to register a single minute in the 15 jersey for the All Blacks and with a World Cup approaching, the likelihood of Jordie Barrett being pushed out of position is minimal. With a Super Rugby season tackle percentage of just 76% for 2022, Jordan is not yet ready to be a key decision-maker for the All Blacks. At 24 years old, Jordan will likely be a spent force in just a matter of years.
Rieko Ioane... he has no need to worry about that anymore; he is young enough to reach 100 tests now that he is a centre. While some crave for the Ioane of old, scoring a try per test to return, I don't.
Rieko Ioane has evolved into a far superior player since his rise to fame and if there is going to be anyone to break Doug Howlett's record as the All Blacks' most prolific ever try-scorer, it will well indeed be Rieko Ioane.