Bigger, stronger but not necessarily any faster – that’s the new mantra for Ardie Savea.
A reputation built on speed and energy goes out the window when Savea makes his All Blacks starting debut in Sunday’s Rugby Championship Test against South Africa.
It’s time to muscle up for the 22-year-old, who at 103kg has put on 5kg in the three years since being invited by coach Steve Hansen to tour as an All Blacks non-playing “apprentice” in 2013.
He learned plenty but was told in no uncertain terms to bulk up if he wants to compete with the big boys.
Hansen says another 5kg would put the flanker at the ideal weight, matching that of the injured openside he replaces this week, Sam Cane.
Some believe Savea’s athleticism off the bench in his rookie season, and for the Super Rugby champions Hurricanes, should have lifted him above the industrious Cane anyway.
Hansen begs to differ, pointing to the physical requirements of starting a Test, especially against a desperate Springboks pack coming off two losses.
“It’s the size of the blokes for a start,” Hansen said.
“He’s now got to come out and do the work Sam’s been doing, the hard work.
“He’s going to have to be strong in the tackle, strong over the ball.”
Savea says he finds it hard to put on weight but is committed to doing so.
He pulled out of the lung-busting New Zealand Olympic sevens programme in April to concentrate on the 15-man game, a decision which has paid off this week.
“Just around that breakdown, that’s where my role expects me to be good,” he said.
“But at the moment I have to trust what I have and embrace what I have to offer and just play some footy.”
Springboks openside Francois Louw, who will notch his 50th Test in Christchurch, has yet to play against Savea.
Louw left the Stormers for English club Bath in 2011, two years before the Kiwi’s Super Rugby debut.
However, the 31-year-old has seen enough on television to be aware of the youngster’s raw ability.
“He’s got a lot of speed but he’s pretty powerful as well,” Louw said.
“He had a good tournament this year, obviously, and he’s done pretty well off the bench for the All Blacks.”