Blues hail Akira Ioane as ‘game-changer’ ahead of Super Rugby Pacific season debut

Super Rugby Pacific: Western Force v Blues. Where: HBF Park, Perth. When: Friday April 30, midnight (NZT). Live coverage: Sky Sport 1, live updates on Stuff. Referee: Angus Gardner.

Could returning All Black Akira Ioane be the missing piece of the puzzle for the Super Rugby Pacific-leading Blues? Coach Leon MacDonald certainly aims to find out in Friday’s round 11 visit to the Western Force in Perth.

Ioane, the 13-test All Black loose forward, was a surprise selection in MacDonald’s starting XV to face the Force at HBF Park and look to extend an eight-match winning streak in the competition. The 26-year-old has not played all season after suffering a foot injury in the leadup to the season opener against the Hurricanes, and it has been a long, hard slog to get him back to full fitness.

But MacDonald has included Ioane, at No 6, among a raft of changes from the side that struggled to repel the challenge of the Fijian Drua last Saturday in Melbourne, with frontliners Caleb Clarke, Zarn Sullivan, Finlay Christie, Dalton Papalii, Ofa Tuungafasi, Kurt Eklund and Alex Hodgman (for his 50th cap) brought back after sitting out last week for various reasons.

* Super Rugby Pacific: Blues coach Leon MacDonald tips his hat to feisty Fijian Drua
* Super Rugby Pacific teams: Moana Pasifika captains Sekope Kepu returns for Rebels clash
* Injury blow for All Blacks as prop Joe Moody sidelined for rest of the year

Ioane’s inclusion, though, is the most notable. Conventional rugby wisdom has that after such a long period out of the game, you bring a player back via the bench. Ease him back into the fray with 20-odd minutes off the pine.

Not Ioane though. MacDonald says what he’s seen on the training field instils confidence his ball-playing loosie is ready to give him an hour from the opening hooter before he “falls off a cliff”. He’s clearly keen to assess his impact in a group that is still searching for its peak, despite the outstanding 8-1 record.

Leon MacDonald says Akira Ioane is 'at his best as good as you get in terms of ball-carrying and defensive work'.

Phil Walter/Getty Images

Leon MacDonald says Akira Ioane is ‘at his best as good as you get in terms of ball-carrying and defensive work’.

“We held him back deliberately,” said the coach. “We could have pushed him out last week, but wanted to give him extra time, get a few more miles in the legs and confidence levels up. At some point he will get tired and he’s going to feel it, but we just felt this week he looks ready to go.”

MacDonald has been well served at No 6 by Tom Robinson who plays as hard as anyone in this group. But clearly he’s intrigued to assess Ioane’s ability to serve up the X-factor that’s a big part of his makeup.

“When you see him on the field he’s a real presence. He’s a great athlete and moves really well, and he’s added some confidence to the team, having him around again,” added the Blues coach.

“He’s a proven performer at this level and above. Last year we saw some performances from him that were game-changing, and at his best he is as good as you can get in terms of ball-carrying and his defensive work as well now. He’s also a leader in his own way – not a Dalton, who’s pretty emotional, he leads through the way he has little conversations with his guys on the side.

The Blues were well below their best as they scrambled victory last week against Jona Mataiciwa and the Fijian Drua.

Kelly Defina/Getty Images

The Blues were well below their best as they scrambled victory last week against Jona Mataiciwa and the Fijian Drua.

“He’s a big part of our team, a big part of the culture and to have him back out there is huge for us.”

MacDonald is certainly expecting, even demanding, a major step up after last week’s wobbly 35-18 victory over the Drua. Following an outstanding fortnight, where the Blues tucked away notable road wins over the Chiefs and Crusaders to stake their championship claim, Melbourne had been a decided misstep against an opponent they struggled to contain.

“We were slightly off … we just didn’t bring that intensity that we were proud of for the previous two weeks, we weren’t as aggressive in the tackle area or breakdown, didn’t get off the line as much, and on attack we made too many errors. That was on us.

“The message this week is it’s about the intensity level we have to bring every time. Across the board we were two clicks behind where we needed to be, and the leaders have identified that and done a good job of demanding it. Having Dalton back has been good because he’s a big driver of off-field standards and on-field energy. This is an important game for us to get this right.”

Plenty of the Blues have a lot to play for. Clarke has been like a cat on a hot tin roof through his three-week suspension and is desperate to pick up where he left off. Hodgman wants to celebrate his 50th in style, Ofa Tuungafasi has stepped up his game notably, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will be keen to find some space and youngster Anton Segner will understand the opportunity he has to impress at No 8.

But no one will have a spring in his step like Ioane. The big loosie is back, and he would love to announce it in style in the wild west.

Strength: Jake Strachan, Toni Pulu, Kyle Goodwin, Bayley Kuenzle, Manasa Mataele, Reesjan Pasitoa, Issak Fines-Leleiwasa; Ollie Callan, Kane Koteka, Fergus Lee-Warner, Izack Rodda, Ryan McCauley, Santiago Medrano, Feleti Kaitu’u, Tom Robertson. Reservations: Andrew Ready, Bo Abra, Greg Holmes, Jeremy Thrush, Tim Anstee, Alex Masibaka, Ian Prior, Richard Kahui.

Blues: Zarn Sullivan, AJ Lam, Bryce Heem, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Caleb Clarke, Beauden Barrett, Finlay Christie; Anton Segner, Dalton Papalii (capt), Akira Ioane, Sam Darry, Luke Romano, Ofa Tuungafasi, Kurt Eklund, Alex Hodgman. Reservations: Ricky Riccitelli Karl Tu’inukuafe, Marcel Renata, Jams Tucker, Taufa Funaki, Tanielu Tele’a, Mark Telea.

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