2018 looms as a pivotal year for a whole host of great Kiwi athletes, teams and sporting figures. Over coming weeks, Sportsroom details the challenges that lie ahead for this nation’s best and fairest. First up, blockbusting All Blacks wing Julian Savea.
“A rollercoaster. Ending up on a high. With a clear mind and pretty happy,” is how All Blacks wing Julian Savea describes a 2017 that saw him play in just two tests for All Blacks, adding just the one try to a tally of 46 that sits just three behind Doug Howlett’s all-time record.
Savea’s last All Blacks appearance came in the 15-15 third test draw with the Lions. Heading into 2018, it’s fair to say the hulking Wellingtonian stands at a crossroads. In one direction lays immortality, the type conveyed by record books that could well proclaim him this country’s most prolific test try scorer. Such tomes already place him above legends such as his idol Jonah Lomu, supreme finishers Jeff Wilson and Sir John Kirwan, and tied with Christian Cullen and Joe Rokocoko.
It’s rarefied air – air that the 27-year-old will eventually breathe alone should he reclaim his spot in the All Blacks for anything resembling a sustained period.
But there is another well-travelled road that also beckons; a trail that leads north to the fat pay cheques of Europe’s cashed-up leagues.
Money or glory?
If only it were that simple.
In 2016 Savea was still operating at his lethal best. He scored a try in every match of the Rugby Championship save the dead rubber against Argentina, and added a brace against Australia in the third Bledisloe Cup test for good measure.
Being cast adrift less than a year later hurt Savea deeply. It also taught him a lot. He knows he isn’t fully in control of his own destiny; that he isn’t necessarily the key figure in how his selectorial fortunes play out. He will, however, be the sole arbiter of what is best for himself and his family.
“I have come to terms with… don’t get me wrong I am real competitive in everything I do, especially rugby… but my personal life is most important,” he said. “I guess I have had that the other way around most of the time.”
The birth of his second daughter Jude (his first with wife Fatima) in December was one of the reasons his 2017 roller coaster ended on a high – and also helped him realign his priorities.
“At the end of the day rugby is just a game. For me it is just making the most of rugby, doing the best I can because I am still a competitor. I like to compete. But having my personal life sussed comes before anything else. Family first.”
While rugby fans, historians and statisticians will be tracking his progress with great interest, Savea himself won’t be obsessing about an All Blacks recall. Getting back in black won’t guarantee 2018 is a success, likewise being overlooked by the All Blacks won’t condemn the year to failure.
“No. Not at all,” he asks when it’s All Blacks or bust. “I feel like if I play to the standards that I am happy with then I am happy. Whatever anyone else says is just outside noise really.
“It’s always about enjoying it. If I’m not then I need to take a step back.”
His goals for the year are simple: “To be the best player that I can be and have fun while I’m doing it. I can’t control the outcomes, but whatever the outcome is, I’m going to make the most of it.”
Will he consider opting out of his contract if the right offer comes along?
“It’s a discussion that I guess my wife and I will have to have. For now, I am here until 2019 – and I’m not looking to leave until I am ready.”
We will know soon enough how the player nicknamed The Bus is tracking. Savea will begin his season at the Brisbane Tens on February 9 and 10. Being free of All Blacks commitments over the second half of 2017 allowed him to accept an ambassadorial role promoting the tournament – work he has enjoyed.
“I am definitely looking forward to being part of the tens. I watched it last year and got pretty excited just being a spectator. Hopefully it won’t be as hot this year. It’s an awesome way to kick off the season.”
Disclaimer: Steve Deane is the New Zealand media manager for the Brisbane Global Rugby Tens.