Watching Ardie Savea pinball through would be tacklers on a rugby pitch, it's easy to appreciate that his big brother Julian played a large part in that physical resilience, employing the natural advantages of a three-year head start in life on his younger sibling.
It stood both in good stead as they went on the play for the All Blacks, Julian a prolific try-scoring wing – he won 54 caps from 2012 to 2017, scoring a staggering 43 tries – while Ardie followed in 2016 and since then the backrow, who can play flanker or number eight with equal facility, has racked up 56 caps (14 tries) and who in August was chosen by coach Ian Foster to lead New Zealand for the first time.
Regular captain Sam Cane was still sidelined through injury, scrumhalf Aaron Smith and secondrow Sam Whitelock, who had deputised in the interim, weren't available so Savea stepped up and led the All Blacks to the Rugby Championship title. He got very emotional when he spoke about what it meant to him, the son of Samoan immigrants.
Family is so important to him, something that he brings up regularly in interviews. Born in the shadow of a rugby stadium in Wellington he played for the local club ‘Ories’ and when his under nines game was finished he’d race across to where his big brother Julian was playing with the under-13s and try and wheedle some game time.
Ardie admitted that any time the brothers played in the yard it was he that would end up crying but that toughening process was invaluable as he got older. The other player that made a huge impression was former All Black centre Ma’a Nonu, whom the younger Savea idolised. Nonu would turn up now and again at the rugby club and on one occasion gave Savea a plastic bag full of gear.
It didn’t matter that the jerseys went down to his ankles, Savea wore them anyway. He also recalled a piece of advice that Nonu gave him, in which the iconic All Blacks star stressed the importance of being a positive role model for kids, something he’s strived to do.
Savea was just 18-years-old when he made his provincial debut for Wellington, was 22 when he won a first senior cap against Wales and since then has gone on to captain the Hurricanes in Super Rugby. There was a point briefly, or at least in a couple of interviews in 2020, in which he toyed with the idea of switching to rugby league.
He said at the time: “I thought of rugby league. I thought of giving that a crack or trying to give it a crack. But a massive one for me that I would love to do is play for Samoa. A big part of why I wanted to go to [rugby] league was because I could play for Samoa because of the rules,” he said before going on to mention how much it would mean to his father.
He didn’t follow through, something that has been appreciated by All Blacks supporters. He is an exceptional athlete and a brilliant rugby player. Foster has chosen Whitelock to lead the All Blacks on their northern hemisphere tour despite the presence in the party of Cane and the success with which Savea discharged the role.
It’s not as if New Zealand are short of exceptional backrows but even within that cohort Savea is a player who stands out, his power, leg drive and ability to ride tackles an important component in his team’s attacking blueprint. He is equally conspicuous in defence.
His qualities are well known to the Ireland players, Savea putting in an outstanding performance in New Zealand’s 46-14 World Cup quarter-final victory over Ireland in Japan. They’ll have to keep him a great deal quieter at the Aviva stadium on Saturday week.