AUCKLAND (Reuters) - With an old head on young shoulders and an electrifying turn of pace, Rieko Ioane is more than ready to face the British and Irish Lions on Saturday and coach Steve Hansen has no qualms about giving him the start in the first test.
Ioane was a surprise pick for the All Blacks’ clash with the Lions at Eden Park, particularly since his inclusion at left wing meant there was no place for Julian Savea, the big Wellingtonian who has made the spot his own since 2012.
Savea has struggled in recent years in Super Rugby but always seemed to rise to the occasion on duty with the All Blacks, holding a remarkable strike rate of scoring 46 times in 53 tests.
Ioane, who also beat Waisake Naholo for the spot, will be playing just his third test when the world champions face the Lions in the opener of a pressure-cooker series.
Hansen had no doubt the 20-year-old will handle the big occasion.
“We think he is more than ready to do the job we want him to do, otherwise we wouldn’t have put him out there,” Hansen told reporters at the team hotel in Auckland on Thursday.
“He has been around us for a long time. You watch people and make assessments of them. ‘Are they weak under pressure or mentally tough under pressure?’
“At some point you have to make the decision ... and he’s just a young man who we have a lot of confidence in.
“I wouldn’t be panicking about it. I think he’ll go okay.”
Ioane, who made his test debut off the bench last year against Italy before taking the field again as a substitute against France, has already played the Lions twice on their 10-match tour.
The first time for the Auckland Blues — where he showed his pace and finishing ability — and for the Maori All Blacks last Saturday in Rotorua.
Hansen said it was his performance against the Blues, where he made Jack Nowell’s life a misery, that had solidified their thinking.
“He’s got electrifying speed,” Hansen added. “We saw plenty in the Blues game that showed us that he can cause bother when he gets some space, he doesn’t need a lot because he’s good on his feet and he’s quick.
“But we had a look at what we’re after and then looked at the whole season and felt that Rieko was the guy who has been in best form throughout the year.
“He has to have something to go in ahead of two really, really good players.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford