New Zealand loose forward Akira Ioane was on the brink of walking away from professional rugby last year until his father, former Samoa international Eddie, gave him a metaphorical “boot up the bum” and asked him if he would rather work a 9-5 job.
“I came to, and said ‘no’,” said Ioane, who on Thursday was named to make his Test debut for the All Blacks against Australia in their Tri Nations clash in Brisbane. “So I got back into my training hard out.”
The work paid off for the dynamic loose forward, who has finally started to realise the potential he showed as a teenager when his pace, size and strength earned him an All Blacks Sevens place straight out of secondary school.
While he excelled at Super Rugby level and was brought into wider All Blacks squads, even playing a non-test match in 2017, he was unable to convince then-coach Steve Hansen he had the work rate or physicality required for international rugby.
Hansen, who rarely criticised players publicly, openly slated Ioane’s fitness and attitude last year and said he had been “surpassed” by other loose forwards in his attempts to make the Rugby World Cup squad.
The criticism so badly affected Ioane that he went public earlier this year with his mental health struggles and said on Thursday it had been touch and go as to whether he played again.
“I wasn’t in the right head space in 2019. I felt like giving up rugby. That was a fairly dark point in my life,” Ioane said.
“I’m just lucky my (friends) and family had my back.”
The conversation with his father was instrumental in a turnaround that saw Ioane become one of the best loose forwards in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
He was more physical, made more tackles and was still explosive with the ball in hand, something that prompted new All Blacks coach Ian Foster to take a fresh look at the 25-year-old.
“The challenge is to transfer that onto the test arena where the whole thing amps up a bit,” Foster said.
“But he’s ready.”