New Zealand’s Ardie Savea a likely handful for Ireland in crunch Rugby World Cup game

‘He’s just got better and better as he’s gotten older and stronger. We’ve always known he’s an exceptional athlete’

Ardie Savea, husband, father, devout Christian, clothing designer, member of Roc Nation — Jay-Z’s athlete management company — a titan in the modern game, a skillset predicated on speed, strength, endurance and toughness which he will seek to impose on Ireland at the Stade de France.

He can draw on empirical proof of recent vintage, his man-of-the-match display during New Zealand’s 42-19 victory over Ireland in the first Test match of last year’s summer series at Eden Park, a game in which Savea not only scored a brace of tries but represented an unplayable force of nature.

Even within the narrow parameters of matches between the countries, Savea has never been a peripheral performer, unless you count the second Test in that series, when he was incorrectly taken from the field at the behest of match officials — Dalton Papali’i was the preferred choice to be replaced when Ofa Tu’ungafasi returned from the sin bin — following a flurry of cards, yellow and red.

That miscommunication was beneficial from an Irish perspective. Savea admitted in the aftermath: “Like everyone else, I wasn’t sure what was going on. I was a bit frustrated. To be honest I wasn’t even watching the game. Selfishly, on my behalf.”


He crossed for his third try in the final Test but that was not enough to rescue his team as Ireland won the series 2-1. Savea, for all his prodigious talent and influence, has been on the losing side in five of the eight matches in which he’s opposed Ireland, including captaining the All Blacks when they lost to Andy Farrell’s side in November 2021.

Younger brother of former All Black wing Julian (54 Tests, 46 tries), he was born in Wellington to Samoan parents, his father a teenage immigrant, who worked overnight in a bakery, to provide for his family. He was inspired to play rugby when Ma’a Nonu came to visit his school.

The family prowess for the sport was evident at a young age, head boy at his school, Rongotai College in suburban Wellington, he captained the first team, scored 17 tries in 36 games for Wellington and eventually followed his brother to the Hurricanes.

A pitstop in Sevens, on the World Series circuit, helped to round out his game. Having travelled on New Zealand’s tour to Europe in 2013 as a “non-playing apprentice” to get an up-close view of life as an All Black, it wasn’t until 2016 that he made his debut in a July Test match against Wales.

Savea’s first five appearances were off the bench, and he started just seven of his first 31 caps. There was a perception afoot that he had to change primarily through hard graft.

Former New Zealand coach Steve Hansen offered an insight as to why. “At one point, he was the impact player off the bench but his stamina and his strength as he’s matured now allows him to do the special things he does for 80 minutes. That puts pressure on everyone else to come to his standards. He’s just got better and better as he’s gotten older and stronger. We’ve always known he’s an exceptional athlete. He’s confident, it doesn’t matter where he plays.”

The latter was a reference to his facility to play right across the backrow.

Deteriorating vision in his left eye that required surgery and a temporary period playing with goggles including at the last World Cup in Japan didn’t compromise the style or substance of his performances.

There’s a long line of team-mates happy to attest to him as a person and a player. Hooker Dane Coles said: “From a little boy from Rongotai to probably one of the best players in the world at the moment. Me and Sammy [Cane], we looked at each other, like ‘man’. It’s his all-round game, like his speed, his physicality. I can’t put it on one thing. He’s just an all-round great player. He’s enjoying his time and it’s special when he’s on your team. He’s just got a good heart, a good person, and when he’s on the field he’s just doing everything he can to show what it means to be an All Black.”

A valedictory display against Italy, comprising tries number 22 and 23 in his 78-Test career to date, two try assists, five broken tackles and 100m run which was only second behind the two wings. New Zealand head coach Ian Foster admitted: “It’s kind of what I expect out of him. He’s a special man. He leads the team well, and the boys follow him. You can’t ask for much more. When we can give Ardie a platform to play and can get him going forward, get that linking game and that carry game going, that’s his element.”

Sam Cane is back to captain the All Blacks so that frees up Savea to an even greater extent.

Away from the pitch, he started a clothing line ASAV with his wife Saskia, T-shirts, hoodies, shorts and pants, bearing the phrase Younique. Following the birth of their third child, they took a step back initially but made a comeback following a collaboration with Australian clothing merchant YKTR (You Know The Rules); the debut collection dropped earlier this year.

After the World Cup Savea will leave his young family behind in New Zealand to embrace a short playing stint with the Kobelco Kobe Steelers. He was honest about his principal motivation. “Plain and simple: to set up my family. The money’s good, I’m not going to lie.”

First though it’s that complicated relationship with Ireland; the good, the bad and the rugby. He’s played them often enough to know what’s coming.

“They’re real class. [Caelan] Doris and [Josh] van der Flier, [Peter] O’Mahony. I feel like they just look like they’re clicking, and in sync. It’s a great challenge to go out and battle against a trio like that. So yeah, really looking forward to it but also know it’s going to be a massive challenge.”

He has a special word for one of the Irish backrow. “Josh van der Flier, a good mate of mine off the field, a good Christian man. He has been impressive. Always a 100 per cent, going hard, just keeps going and could go for another 80.”

If Ireland are going to win then they’re going to have to suppress or subdue Savea’s influence; not completely because that would be impossible but to try and keep him on the edges of the game, figuratively speaking, because in those wide channels his athletic acumen can have devastating consequences for opponents.

Savea celebrates his 30th birthday on Saturday. Ireland would like to limit it to a consolatory beer, at least for a couple of hours.