Savea 2.0: The quest for All Black No.14 jersey
ANALYSES: The rise of Rieko Ioane as the new wunderkind sensation last year forced a relatively young 26-year old Julian Savea back to New Zealand's NPC for the first time in a long while.
It seemed his chances of reclaiming his All Blacks 11 jersey decreased with every Ioane performance as the 20-year old upstart continued his breakout tour over Europe. During that Mitre 10 domestic season with the Lions, Savea made a relatively unnoticed position swap into the number 14 jersey.
It was not explained why, but connecting the dots it seemed like Savea would re-establish himself as a right wing and push his way back into international contention that way. Instead of competing with Ioane, he would play on the opposite side.
Now, two games into the Super Rugby season, it is all but certain that is the path he is taking. The Hurricanes have started Savea on the right flank in the first two games of the season, and it is fair to say there are growing pains right now.
This transition is far more difficult than you think. If you ask any player who has predominately been on one side and then moved to the other they will tell you it takes getting used to. The frames of reference for Savea have been flipped, and this can throw out everything.
To understand how important one’s reference points are in elite sport, you need to know the story of Jennie Finch. Finch was a top pitcher in women’s softball who was pitted against some of the top hitters in Major League Baseball in the early 2000’s.
Finch was expected to be smashed out of the park by the home run kings of the MLB. What transpired was Finch struck out every one of them without so much as a base hit.
They figured out that the release point of a softball pitcher is completely foreign to a baseball player who’s complete hand-eye coordination has been wired from a slightly higher pitching point. When Finch under-armed the ball to the best hitters in baseball they could not hit the ball, despite being the best hitters in their sport they couldn’t adjust to a change of about a metre in where the ball was released.
Everything can be said to be ‘foreign’ now for Savea, with everything happening inside his left-eye which has probably been subconsciously dormant for the last eight years. When you’re playing the game at the highest level at that speed, this matters.
You have to expect it will take some time for Savea to get a handle on it, but having already spent a provincial season there will help. In addition to re-wiring his perspective, there will be specific things Savea will be expected to bring to the right wing if he is to be a serious contender for the All Blacks.
The All Blacks right wing
The All Blacks love playing current and ex-fullbacks on the right wing.
Ben Smith, Israel Dagg, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Cory Jane have all played there in the last five years.
Why’s that? It’s because they are usually great under the high ball, having defused and fielded kicks for years. The kick-contest is such an integral part of the right-wing position for the All Blacks. To have an aerial specialist on one side allows the team to release a beast like Savea on the other.
You will often see the All Blacks shift wide left after regaining possession of a box kick. The defence is scrambling backwards and often part of the second line of defence (fullback or winger) has been weakened by the original box kick. It is the perfect time to release a power runner on the left edge with limited cover defence. If they can beat someone one-on-one it’s game over.
It’s not a hard and fast rule, the left wing also competes in the air too but with their best catchers on the right flank, it has become a tactic.
In the first game against the Bulls, the Hurricanes had no contestable kicks for Savea to chase. Ihaia West kicked for touch on every exit play, and TJ Perenara did not attempt any box kicks on that side of the field. He did defuse one of the Bulls box kicks in the second half, but we didn’t see enough.
Against the Jaguares with Barrett back at 10, the Hurricanes put a number of contestable kicks up for Savea to compete for in the first half. On four contestable kicks, he wasn’t able to win back possession on any of them twice failing to get a good jump on the ball. On the other two, he conceded one knock-on but also forced one error.
Not a convincing case for consideration. This will be the biggest area of his game to improve on throughout the season to push for selection.
Making defensive reads as the opposite wing is where Savea will need time to adjust. On his second tackle attempt of the season, Bulls centre Jesse Kriel bounced to his outside shoulder and set up a try. Despite that lapse, he was adequate throughout the game.
Savea’s tactic worked successfully against the Jaguares, where the ballplayers did not have the vision to go over the top to use the space. He rushed up-and-in to shut down the passing lane. A cutout pass over the top could leave the Hurricanes vulnerable, with Beauden Barrett still coming up from a long way back.
He consistently rushed up and in but against tougher competition, this could be a risk. The Crusaders especially, are one of the best teams at beating teams on the edge and Jack Goodhue will have no problem getting the ball over Savea if he continues to jam in.
The Jaguares almost scored on this play if not for a basic handling error with the line begging.
A number of these decisions to rush in where based on being outnumbered, but he often looked to make a play on the ball and not the man. Against superior competition, he may have to play more passively or look to make a tackle instead of looking for an intercept.
Parking the Bus?
Through one-and-a-half games, Savea was hardly seen in attack either. A below-par team performance against the Bulls severely limited his chances of making an impact, finishing with only 18 running metres on four carries.
In the first 40 minutes against the Jaguares, he had two touches for little less than 10 metres and one knock-on.
Then all of a sudden, the ‘Bus’ resumed normal service in the 52nd minute. A barnstorming run down the sideline in which Savea ran through, and over, no less than four Jaguares defenders opened up the match. In one instant, Savea proved why he is so dangerous.
The crucial try, finished by Matt Proctor after the 70-metre movement, edged the Hurricanes ahead from 12-9 to 19-9 where the Jaguares couldn’t recover from. Savea exploded in the last half hour making three line breaks and 70-odd run metres.
If he can carry that blockbusting form through the rest of the Super Rugby season, he gives the All Blacks selectors an enticing proposition with two power runners on the edges. However, it could be argued that Waisake Naholo already provides that, and he has the advantage of working with Aaron Smith on a day-to-day basis.
It is going to take a special season and a marked improvement in aerial contests for Savea to force his way in as the number one right-wing option. Despite the challenge that he faces, the All Blacks always utilise depth during the season so there is no reason why Julian Savea won’t be back in black this year. Injuries always play a part, outside of Ioane, Savea would still be the number two left-wing option.