Julian Savea aims to make leap into the history books
All Black' outstanding winger has the chance to beat his idol Jonah Lomu’s World Cup try-scoring record
Julian Savea collects a high ball during an All Blacks training session: the player had to put in long hours to improve his aerial ability. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images
The number 11s are hogging it today. Bryan Habana needs one more try to surpass Jonah Lomu’s record tally of 15 World Cup tries, while Julian Savea needs one more to eclipse Lomu’s record of eight in one World Cup. Whisper it, not least to the player himself, but Savea could well stand comparison as the pick of them all one day – maybe even today.
Comparisons with Lomu have accompanied Savea since his barnstorming days with the New Zealand Schools and Under-20 sides – and he hates them. Akin to Jamie Heaslip’s surprisingly emotional response to eclipsing David Wallace – the Irish back-rower he respects more than any other – as Ireland’s most capped back-row player in the opening warm-up game over Wales, Savea has always been genuinely embarrassed by the comparisons with his boyhood idol.
“For me personally, no one’s better than Jonah,” Savea once said. It’s a theme he has regularly returned to, up until last week in the aftermath of his stunning hat-trick against France. “He was my idol growing up. He changed the game back in his era and inspired a lot of kids, so to me no one is ever going to be better than Jonah. He was one in a million.”
Different times. Lomu transcended the sport, emerging as a freakish force of nature in the 1995 World Cup, to become rugby’s first real global superstar. Yet Savea’s hat-trick last Saturday took him to 38 international tries, fifth on the All Blacks’ list, one place and one try ahead of Lomu.
Given it has only taken Savea 39 tests to reach that landmark, his strike rate of 0.97 per test is by some distance the best in history for a player with that kind of body of work. Of the Tier 1 teams, the next best is Christian Cullen on 0.79.
Lomu, with 37 tries in 63 games, had a strike rate of 0.59 tries per game, while allowance has to be made for Habana proving himself over a longer period in a less dominant side who don’t create as many openings for their wingers, his tally of 65 tries in 115 caps equates to 0.56 per game.
Of course, it remains to be seen if Savea can maintain such consistency and longevity. Looking further down the track, Habana will be 36 come the 2019 global rendezvous in Japan, and thus like so many others in today’s semi-final, this almost certainly marks his final World Cup.
If Savea though claims the record for one World Cup outright, he will have every chance of pushing for the other in Japan in four years’ time, when he will be 29.
But it’s not just a question of Savea’s incomparable strike rate. It’s a different era for sure, but furthermore, with so much more expected of modern-day wingers, given the increased need for better positional play, strength in the air, a kicking game and even clear-outs, Savea is undoubtedly a more complete player than Lomu.
Lomu was never comfortable when the ball was put in behind him or above him. Savea had to work on his aerial skills after first breaking into the All Blacks team but has done so successfully.
“Mark Hammett at the Wellington Hurricanes was very good with him,” says Nigel Yalden, the Radio Sport rugby editor and columnist. “They kept him back for 10 or 15 minutes after every training sessions, working on his aerial ability but not at the expense of his strengths, which they also worked on. His positional play is very good, he has a step, he fends well, he can offload and he can kick, although he doesn’t use it much.” Indeed, at yesterday’s captain’s run, Savea joined in the end-of-session kick-about and chased his own kicks impressively.
Yalden confirms the impression Savea always conveys in his low-key interviews. “He’s very humble and he’s a quiet sort of bloke,” he says.
According to some Kiwi journalists, Savea deliberately gives the impression of someone with little to say for himself – although this is increasingly the All Blacks’ default mode in mass interviews – whereas among his teammates he’s a sharp and lively joker.
“He likes his dance, he likes his music, and has quite a nice singing voice,” Yalden says. Indeed, if the camera trails Savea in the initial walkabout at Twickenham today, the winger will have his headphones and may do a few moves. These skills were perfected at home after family Sunday lunches.
Masina Savea and his wife Lina were both born in Samoa before emigrating to the southern tip of the north island of New Zealand and rearing their two boys, Julian and Ardie, in Berampore. Music blaring, their parents would encourage the two boys to dance, with their aunts acting as judges.
“When we were kids we were always watching music clips together and then we’d have dance battles,” according to his younger brother. “On Sunday we’d have big family lunches and Dad would make us have a dance war for our aunties. It usually ended with one of us crying; mostly it was me. But I’m a better dancer than him. He knows it: he steals all my moves.”
Masina played outhalf for Oriental Rongotai in the early 1990s and was renowned for his defence, while Lina was a good netballer, and it was at ‘Ories’ where the two boys began at under-5 (Ardie, a flanker, now also plays for the Wellington Hurricanes).
“We didn’t have a car when we were young, not till I was maybe 13 or 14, so we were always walking places or catching taxis to training or trying to get rides with someone,” the younger brother has said. “That’s how it was; it was hard sometimes. But we saw that and we always wanted to repay that, for everything they’ve done for us. Me and Jules saw the hard work they did and how they wanted us to achieve.”
After moving to Strathmore, the boys were sent to Rongotai College, where Savea established himself as the stand-out player of his generation (often used as centre, simply to get the ball into his hands) and would go on to represent New Zealand Schools, Sevens and Under-20 sides.
It was in the 2010 IRB Junior World Championships that Savea gave a foretaste of what might come in this World Cup when scoring eight tries in three appearances, prompting New Zealand coach Dave Rennie to nickname him “The Bus”. The comparisons with Lomu were also becoming commonplace.
In what would become a recurring feature of his career, Savea scored a length-of-the-pitch try on his debut for the Wellington side that same year, and in 2011 he scored eight tries in his 14 appearances for the Hurricanes.
There was an inevitability about his All Blacks debut. After they regained the World Cup in 2011, in Steve Hansen’s first game in charge as head coach, Savea was granted his debut in the first of the three-test series against Ireland.
As Richie McCaw had done on his debut against Ireland in 2001, Savea began his test career by dropping the ball. McCaw went on to be man of the match, and hasn’t done too badly since.
Savea scored a hat-trick in that 42-10 win in Eden Park, to announce himself as the impending best winger-cum-finisher in the world.
It was also the night Aaron Smith made his eye-catching debut with that laser gun pass off both hands, strong kicking game and equally strong running game, to announce himself as assuredly the best scrum-half in the world over the last four years. Oh yes, it was also the night Brodie Retallick made his debut, before going on to become the 2014 World Player of the Year.
Nice to know Ireland was such a useful launching pad.
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for a player who is, uncannily, number 1,111 in the roll-call of All Blacks’ test players.
In April 2013, Savea publicly apologised to his then partner Dawn Rodgers – and mother of their daughter Cora – after being charged with assault over a domestic incident. “My partner and I had an argument, I did some things that are wrong, that I shouldn’t have done, and I apologise for that. To my partner and family, I want to say I’m sorry. I know what I did was wrong, and I’m taking steps to make sure this will never happen again.”
Savea had appeared on posters for the previous year’s “It’s Not OK” campaign against family violence.
The charge against Savea for assaulting Rodgers was withdrawn by a Wellington district court judge after he completed a police programme designed to prevent re-offending.
Faster and stronger
This year, Savea was dropped for the All Blacks first three tests after turning up at camp overweight, although it is testimony to his importance that Hansen kept him within the squad.
Speaking after last week’s hat-trick, Savea said: “I love my food. I enjoy my food as well. But I’ve got to thank the trainers for kicking me up the butt.” Savea also admitted he needed the kicking.
“Yeah, yeah, I knew I needed it. But we are all on the same page. They trained us really hard. I’m pretty happy. I was only a couple of kgs over but it makes all the difference to be able to drop that. Dunno know if you know about skinfolds? It’s how much fat you are carrying. I was about 84 and now I am down to 59, that’s my PB!”
Wheeled out in front of the media throng on Thursday, he was asked if he could become even faster and stronger.
“Hopefully. I’ve prepared really well, I’ve trained really hard but my focus is on the All Blacks, not so much what I can do individually but what I can do for the team. I’ll do my best.”
He was more effusive when asked to talk about Habana. “Wearing the same number, I’ve always watched him growing up, I’m going up against JP [Pietersen], who is very dangerous, a good defender, chases the kicks really well and scores the tries as well. This semi-final brings out a different beast in everyone and although we have played South Africa before, it will be a different beast this weekend. We’ve just got to be ready.”
As ever though, he batted away any comparison with Lomu.
“It is always an honour but my focus is what I can do for this team this weekend. To be part of it is special for me.”
Modest, humble and a man of few words in public he may be, but greatness beckons.