He may have been left out of Steve Hansen's New Zealand squad for the upcoming Rugby Championship, but Ardie Savea has been in exceptional form for the Hurricanes
“People are always afraid of what is different. They are afraid of change. It is the same everywhere.”
So runs a line from Shaolin Tiger, a book written by Australian children’s author Sandy Fussell. It feels like an apt summation of Ardie Savea’s current predicament.
Besides anything else, the explosive openside flanker has been terrifyingly good over the current Super 15 season. Though slightly unconventional in stature for a number seven – many dubbed him too wiry to influence the breakdown, too light to consistently threaten the gain-line – his effervescent efforts have been a huge factor in the Hurricanes‘ route to Saturday’s final.
Certainly, it would be a big boost to the Highlanders‘ hopes if Savea’s knee injury keeps the 21 year-old out of the decider.
That Steve Hansen deemed Savea to be surplus to the requirements of his New Zealand squad for the Rugby Championship and one-off international against Samoa is rather scary as well. But you could not accuse the All Blacks boss of ignorance. He brought Savea on tour to Japan and Europe in a non-playing capacity as an ‘apprentice’ 20 months ago and clearly knows of his talents.
It is probably fair to say Hansen has erred on the side of caution. Crusader Matt Todd offers versatility and solidity, as well as a couple of caps’ experience. Even so, the comments of Chris Boyd this week were telling.
The Hurricanes coach explained that his young game-breaker would be given as long as possible to prove his fitness, before adding, “At the end of the day, there’s not much after Saturday for him.”
The tone was a regretful one. In the first 49 minutes of a 29-9 win over the Brumbies before he hobbled off, Savea made it very easy to imagine him in the Test arena.
Swooping to steal
It took around 200 seconds for Savea to make an important contribution, pilfering possession after teammate Ma’a Nonu brought down burly No 8 Ita Vaea:
This sublime steal can be boiled down into three stages. First, Savea backpedals so he is not involved in Nonu’s tackle:
This permits him to compete for the ball, so he drops low and clamps onto the ball amid the attempted clear-out of Christian Leali’ifano:
At this point, a reverse angle gives an idea of Savea’s opportunism. It takes courage, technique and timing to strike at moments such as these:
But Savea is not finished. He wrenches the ball back towards his own posts as Matt Toomua tears in…
…before turning to pass the ball backwards to scrum-half TJ Perenara:
This last action showcases tremendous awareness. As the Hurricanes keep demonstrating, turnover ball often brings fantastic attacking potential given the opposition is disjointed.
Sure enough, Perenara shapes to kick before spotting teammates in space to the left and launching a counter:
Savea demonstrated similarly canny decision-making later on.
Shipping on, support lines and shaking off tacklers
Back-rowers that are comfortable in wide channels are met with a degree of suspicion on these shores. For some old-school spectators, work-rate and ball-handling ability are mutually exclusive.
We have already seen Savea’s tenacity in the tight. Now for some intelligence in the loose. Here, he transfers the ball on to Brad Shields with a nice, crisp, early pass off his right hand:
When elder brother Julian collects and storms infield, Savea stays on his feet and tracks the path of play:
Hunting the carrier, Ardie is at one point on Julian’s right shoulder in prime position to take an offload:
However, Julian opts to take the ball to ground. Ardie is first on the scene, and guards the breakdown with his head up in anticipation of a counter-ruck as Perenara delves in to spread it back to the right:
Not long afterwards, the Savea wearing seven would do more damage:
Fast-twitch athleticism and staggering leg-drive are at work in this instance. There is also a bit of nous. As full-back James Marshall is primed to catch the ball at first receiver, look at the man opposite Savea. It is Brumbies tighthead prop Ben Alexander:
Immediately upon taking the pass, Savea heads off on an outside arc, backing his pace in a classic mismatch against a tight-five forward:
Wing Lausii Taliauli does well in shepherding the Hurricanes to the five-metre line, and turns back in to confront Savea when he knows Alexander in beaten. However, his position is too upright and Savea brushes him off:
Eventually brought down following a 40-metre break, Savea places the ball on a pristine platter for Perenara. Such contact skills allow the Hurricanes train to continue full speed:
All this had happened before the end of the first quarter. Despite the hosts’ dominance at the Westpac Stadium, the score was 0-0. Then came a double blow within seven minutes.
More evasion from Savea hurts the Brumbies here:
Rather than an outside angle, this half-break is manufactured from a step inside. However, the same principal comes in handy. Again, Savea spots Alexander in the line:
As the Brumbies defence stretches to its right to cover the flanks, the gap between Toomua and Alexander widens:
Savea seizes the opening, tying in three defenders:
Ardie Savea’s next intervention was subtle. Keep your eyes on him from this Hurricanes lineout:
Nonu trucks up to set the platform, but Vaea senses that the inside centre has become isolated and zeroes in on the ball. Fortunately for the Hurricanes, Savea is alert. He races in as well…
…and, following a short skirmish, grapples Vaea to the floor:
Two phases later, the Hurricanes found an edge and this happened:
Either side of half-time, Savea rounded off his display.
A tackle and a try
Throughout this campaign, Savea’s tackle count has been high. This challenge, on Brumbies keynote carrier Vaea, came at a vital time:
Now, Vaea undoubtedly wins the collision here. That said, Savea wraps himself around the ball. Although the Brumbies get in behind, there is no chance to offload:
As such, the Hurricanes can scramble back and go again. They kept their line intact, heading into the interval 12-3 up. Savea’s score then put another nail in the Brumbies’ coffin:
Clearly, Savea is merely one cog in an efficient machine here. Still, tracking him offers up some great insight. First, watch how Savea arches his back to see over the bodies as the maul screws around:
He then does well to remain on his feet as back of the maul breaks off and surges towards the whitewash…
…before dotting down under close scrutiny from David Pocock:
Pocock has been superb for the Brumbies this year, but came off second best while Savea was in action.
The Australian gave away a penalty on the half-hour for coming in at the side to clear out his opposite number – a particularly frustrating occurrence for any openside.
Indeed, it was only when Savea left proceedings that he managed to assert some breakdown authority, this astonishing turnover-cat-flap-combination taking top billing:
If Savea recovers sufficiently to participate in the final, he can be buoyed by recent memories of manhandling Waisake Naholo, the Highlanders’ most potent weapon:
If he does not, he can take immense pride in the knowledge that this was a fantastic campaign. World Cup or not, it is a case of when, not if, Ardie Savea excels in the All Blacks ranks.