Rieko Ioane: “I’m like a kid in a candy store”
New Zealand’s latest wonder wing Rieko Ioane tells Alan Dymock why he’s loving life with the All Blacks. This feature first appeared in the December issue of Rugby World magazine.
The most terrifying attacker from the recent Rugby Championship still lives with his mum and dad.
On 35 occasions during the competition, All Black stripling Rieko Ioane ghosted past would-be tacklers from Argentina, Australia and South Africa, spooking them on his way to five tournament tries – joint-top of the charts, with Israel Folau. He also led for metres made, with 649. Despite his impish demeanour and lack of Test experience, he was ruthless.
It was a similar story during the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, when six minutes into his first match against the tourists, for Auckland Blues, Ioane scorched past Jack Nowell to score.
He failed to shine for the Maori All Blacks against the Lions, but was up to his best again for the first Test of the tour. After being picked for New Zealand ahead of try-scoring machine Julian Savea, he scored two of his own. The first was an embarrassing moment for the visitors as the 20-year-old wing caught a bouncing ball that the Lions back three looked petrified to go near, before pulling away from Elliot Daly, who dived towards him in vain.
Fearless and in near-peerless form out wide, the world lies at Rieko’s feet. But it can stay there for now as he reclines at home with mum Sandra, dad Eddie, brother Akira and French bulldog Echo.
“It saves a lot more money!” Ioane jokes, when asked why he hasn’t left the nest. “It makes everything simpler, being at Mum and Dad’s. There’s always food on the table, the washing machine’s always going, you go to training but then you come back and go to bed… People can look at it and say, ‘You guys should move out.’ But we’re still only young. It’s only in sport I am excelling. It makes life easier.
“Rugby can be for a short time. Having a strong connection with your family is important. Your friends and family drive you on. And obviously one day we have to help provide for Mum and Dad.”
If you are part of the rugby scene in Auckland you should know the Ioanes. Father Eddie played for Samoa, mother Sandra Wihongi played for the Black Ferns, but it’s at the Ponsonby club where they’re ingrained now and Sandra serves as club manager. She made news herself during the Lions tour when she adopted a fan, Alex Edwards. Ioane laughs looking back: “Mum said we had Alex staying and I said, ‘Oh yeah… (wait) who’s Alex?!’ Next thing you know, everyone’s in the paper. She’d probably bring home a whole contingent of Lions supporters if she could!”
In rugby terms, the youngest Ioane and his 22-year-old back-row brother, Akira, have great examples at home. Honesty is at the bedrock of their interactions about the game. If he has a bad performance, Rieko knows his parents and friends will point it out. Mess up and a few texts will be coming his way.
FOR THE LATEST SUBSCRIPTION OFFERS, CLICK HERE
He also has plenty of role models at his franchise to rely on, explaining that extra help from those he trusts is what “gets me over the line” in the still-sometimes surreal world of elite sport. Both brothers have gone from NPC rugby to Olympic sevens, and now Rieko is a try-greedy All Black. The speed of the ascent does surprise him.
“My brother and Sonny Bill Williams have given me the most help,” Ioane tells Rugby World. “A handful of coaches have also been helping me, individually. Sonny Bill and I have talked ever since we were involved with the sevens together. We’re good mates.”
Williams has been around the block a few times and has shone on several stages, so Rieko knows that an honest view from the blockbuster centre can hold profundity. As for Akira, they certainly see a lot of each other. Rieko jokes that as they live and train together, the only time they’re apart is when they’re asleep. “Even if he isn’t going to admit it, he still follows me around!” he says mischievously.
Most of the world’s Test sides are still following the All Blacks. Some expected the world champions to be scratching around as if they had lost their keys after the departure of so many Test veterans following World Cup 2015. Instead, they have pumped in some newbies amongst the veterans – as the statistics on these pages show. The team have pioneered a mentorship programme of sorts – Ioane, for example, has no fear of touring Europe this month because he travelled with the All Blacks last year and was blooded off the bench.
While this is a nice wee introduction to the thrum and bluster of Internationals, though, the New Zealand coaches will not shy away from slipping in someone like Ioane or lock Scott Barrett or fly-half Richie Mo’unga, should injury or form demand a change. They are fully invested in the old saying about a young player being old enough when they show they are good enough.
“Shag (head coach Steve Hansen) has had a plan, even post-World Cup. It’s about getting players into the shape and the brand they play. The young fellas, we’re keen and we’ve been pushed and encouraged by senior players like Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino.”
Judging by the way he has quickly reacted to try-scoring opportunities in the Rugby Championship, is it fair to say Ioane is now comfortable in that environment? “A couple of those moments I put down to the players around you. It was Aaron Smith’s quick thinking to kick (for a try against South Africa) – all I had to do was catch the ball. I’d probably put it down to instinct. It was tidy to get a meat pie.
“I probably had one of those (stunned) moments on the bus on the way to the first Lions Test in Auckland. It was just a sea of black and red. I think I zeroed out and had a think to myself. I do have those moments every Saturday that we play. I’m just enjoying it at the moment, mate. We get to travel, go to nice places – everything’s just fun for me, as it would be for anyone. I’m like a kid in a candy store. I’m having heaps of fun.
“But you do have to buy in. The All Blacks environment does force you to grow up a bit. You wanna be the best but if you ever think you’ve made it or you can just do enough to get by, it teaches you pretty quickly to grow up and take responsibility.”
For so many young athletes, the serious side of things is tied to performance. When it’s going well, hey, the professionalism must have been there all along, lads. When it hits the fan though, maybe you didn’t take enough responsibility or eased off at some point in your preparation cycle.
Ioane hasn’t had any real bumps in the road during his career yet, so we can’t know how he will cope – though he is endearingly open and focused, but also refreshingly nerveless as he talks. Those are rare qualities for a professional athlete so young and it’s a reassuring sign for the future. So who could begrudge him his fun?
Take the Blues’ match against the Lions. After leaving Nowell to curse his own feet, Ioane celebrates his try with a little wave to the crowd. After thumping his chest twice, he calms and his arm pulls up straight and signals to the roaring crowd as a smile sloshes across his face. It would seem wrong to describe the actions of any winger who is 6ft 2in and around 16st as ‘cute’, but in the moment he radiates innocence.
It is for that reason that you want him to make the most of his talents while he has his home comforts, his candy store mentality. Although he is always competitive with Akira – in the 2016 Mitre 10 Cup, Rieko beat 62 defenders to Akira’s 59 to top that particular stats table – he claims he doesn’t look at the numbers, he just plays. You may not believe that, and there’s cause to doubt that someone lighting up the stats panels would ever ignore the figures. However, the youngest Ioane already expects improvements in his game.
When pushed on what he has to work on, he leads us along as he thinks out loud.
“I think it’s everything. All we’ve done so far is all good but I’ve got to keep working. I hope to get a bit bigger, a bit faster and fitter. I can work on tackle technique and the breakdown. The list of work-ons is bigger than the list of things I am good at.”
That is a good stock answer for your average 20-year-old. He feels his life is just like most kids, happily explaining that away from the field his girlfriend pretty much looks after him or that his downtime is spent on the PlayStation or at the movies. We know he benefits from the care provided at home. But he is not your normal 20-year-old, is he?
International rugby has not looked uncomfortable for him. Nor has fielding questions from a stranger. He has seen some of the world and had some of its best rugby players hurled at him. There is more to see, in more ways than one. Try to hold on to the image of the little wave and the happy family life. Because he will be back out there punishing flat-footed wingers soon enough. It could get more frightening.
“In a couple of years I’ll be a better player than I am today,” Ioane says, almost as if it’s just occurred to him.
This feature first appeared in the December issue of Rugby World magazine.