Brothers can often be the most fiercest of competitors. The internal battles fought over time can bring out the best from each. So for the Savea boys, those times pretending they were All Blacks developing their backyard rugby skills have come true.
On August 20, at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, Ardie Savea made his test debut–substituted on for Sam Cane. At that point, he joined brother Julian as the 44th set of brothers representing New Zealand in rugby. A huge honour for their family, the boys from Rongatai College have reached the apex of professional rugby.
Backyard rugby between the Savea brothers
Backyard rugby in Berhampore is a long way from the ANZ Stadium. The Wellington born brothers have always been close. Four years separate Ardie from his older brother, but the younger brother always remembers challenging his older sibling.
“We are tight now but growing up we were pretty competitive. He told me I was annoying when I used to follow him around all the time. When we weren’t playing rugby outside, we played inside on our knees. Those games usually ended in tears.”
The rivalry extended when each followed their father Masina to Oriental-Rongatai rugby club. The patriarch encouraged his boys passion for sports, with Julian still holding many school records: 12.92m in the under-14 shot put in 2004, 5.86m a year later in the under-15 long jump and 43.92m for discus.
‘Ories’ have benefited from a rich history of former All Blacks, including Ma’a Nonu. The young Savea boys would add to that history. That was through determination, as much as natural skill honed through backyard rugby.
“I think [that’s driven them]. They know what it means to work hard, they’ve seen their parents work hard, and we all know that’s what gets you to the top,” say’s Dave Meaclem, who coached both in various teams. He also coached Nonu and Victor Vito.
Close-knit Wellington rugby community developed talent
Success with Oriental-Rongatai in XV’s and in sevens rugby followed both. And it led to each representing their province. The Wellington Lions have seen both play in the black and yellow–Julz in 2010, with Ardie debuting in 2012.
Their taste for national representation has brought much applause. Ardie was voted New Zealand Age Grade Player of the Year. In a way, whatever benchmark Julian placed down, Ardie would strive to better–just like brothers and siblings across history.
In NZ Rugby, you talk of the Meads brothers; Colin and Stan. The Clarke’s; Ian and Don. Gary and Alan Whetton won a Rugby World Cup together, as has Owen and Ben Franks. Some might believe that Julian and Ardie are destined for accolades similarly.
First pair of All Black brothers to both score in a test
During The Rugby Championship test in Christchurch, one record was written by the pair. In Ardie’s first starting test, the brothers both scored tries. It is the only time a ‘starting pair’ of brothers have scored tries for New Zealand–Gavin and Scott Hastings being the first International brothers to do so, in 1990.
In that Christchurch test, they not only claimed a record, but showed the natural, backyard rugby skills that are in-built. In one movement, we saw the inventive play which the ‘brothers Savea’ might have played in their backyard. With the ball shifted left, Julz fed Ardie who put the ball on his toe. It might not have fallen as perfectly as it did in their hours of practice, but it showed that unspoken-connection the two can display.
All Black attack built on familiarity
This time, they could not combine to score through that backyard rugby style, however it demonstrated the different attitude from the two sides. One was going to spread the ball widw….and often. The other [South Africa] relied on more combative methods. The Savea example was only one of many from the team on that night. Those moments reinforce the work that coaches like Wayne Smith and Nick Gill put in with this champion side.
Sam Whitelock admitted that, when saying “Smitty will take the wraps for us working hard. Even when a replacement player comes on, you know he has the skills. We are all working hard for your mate, to not let the team down.”
The drills and repeated training’s have in-built a high skills base on which the team can build from. Basics first, tackling, passing and set-play. From that base, coach Steve Hansen knows that natural ability can them transform the sides attacking threat into points. On the back of Savea backyard rugby ‘dreaming’ and polished by the All Blacks system, both players can only improve over more test matches.
Ardie chooses All Blacks over Sevens
Ardie Savea, the explosive loose forward has also represented New Zealand in Sevens, like his brother has. When the game of Rugby Sevens was included in the Olympic program, players could now include ‘golden dreams’ in their goals.
Ardie initially chose that route, and All Black Sevens coach Sir Gordon Tietjens signed the younger brother to the 2015/2016 Sevens Series team. He had to rebuild those base skills–as the sevens game is very much different to XV’s. He also had to give up Super Rugby, where he had been a sensation in 2015.
After a dozen tournaments, he made a shocking decision though. Tempted by Gold, Ardie then did an about-face and effectively resigned from the Sevens Series. Returning to Super Rugby, he made a mature decision–to drive for both a Super Rugby winners medal–to aim for All Blacks honours.
It turned out to be the right decision. He was instrumental in the Hurricanes sensational season, in claiming the Championship. Then selected for the All Blacks, the rest; as they say, is history.
Julian recovers form to continue try-scoring trend
Julian Savea is blessed with several attributes that helped him reach the top of the rugby world. Speed, size and humility. That final element has played a repeated role in his career. As he reached great heights of success, Julian has also endured many ‘lows’.
After his initial success of 2010, he missed selection for the 2011 World Cup squad. That was a difficult period, but he soon gained a debut on June 9, 2012. That was the beginning of a rapid rise.
“This year I’ve worked really hard; the boys have helped me and especially the coaches. That [clarity] is the difference. It brings the confidence in knowing what I’m doing, what I’m allowed to do and what I shouldn’t.”
He was the perfect match for his Hurricanes right-wing Cory Jane. They were became the new ‘Ebony & Ivory’ in reference to Stu Wilson and Bernie Fraser. But while All Blacks success saw him score many wonderful tries, Hurricanes and Wellington form was more fleeting.
Julian faced his demons, he was challenged by coaches like Mark Hammett, yet thrived when under the eye of Sir Graham Henry and Hansen. It was hard to fathom, and in 2016 it nearly cost Savea his place. Dropped by Chris Boyd, he had to improve.
Thankfully, once he proved his fitness, the All Blacks showed a confidence in his ability. He has steadily improved, and was rewarded with a handful of tries–like candy to a child, a try is the greatest inducement to performance.
The best that both can bring
As good as each may have been at backyard rugby, the professional game needs constant work. As much as Julian needs consistency to his role, Ardie needs to work on his physical stature. Steve Hansen believes he needs to add four kilograms to become a ‘lethal weapon’.
Both are now in the spotlight, but each is still humble. From their early lives, family has been a focal point. Family dinners every Sunday. That, and sport have been fundamental to their success, and now as the sport begins to supersede their lives, the values established by family is an attribute each still treasures.
As brothers, they understand the others strengths, but within the All Blacks both will be given roles to play. If that means Ardie joins as the ‘ultimate impact’ then he will do that job. If Julian is asked to charge it up the middle, instead of gliding down the wing, he will do that job.
Backyard Rugby Skills Build Savea Confidence
Each has individual skills that make them quite likely the ‘best in their positions’. Naturally confident in their abilities, each has long; and for Julian currently, illustrious careers. His try scoring strike rate is second to none. He looks likely to break the all time record by Doug Howlett (49).
Ardie has only just started. He has many opportunities ahead of him–including this weekend in South America. Now standing beside his brother, expect to hear the surname Savea being read out by the All Blacks selectors for many years to come.
“Main photo credit”