Do Not Write of “The Bus”

Julian Savea is 27 but his career at the top is far from over.

Campbell Burnes believes that Julian Savea will fire again in 2018.

Do not be too hasty in writing the rugby obituary of Julian Savea.

At 27, he is nearing the age when great wingers have hit their peaks and are often sliding inexorably down the mountain.

But there were prime signs of life in ‘The Bus’ during the Mitre 10 Cup. Savea was in the top 10 for metres gained and defenders beaten, and he made 17 breaks, hardly the stats of one who might have dropped his bundle after being discarded by the All Blacks.

Savea’s career has known the highest highs and some dark lows. Exploding onto the Wellington club scene as an 18-year-old as unstoppable as Va’aiga Tuigamala straight out of school, Savea was the 2010 IRB junior player of the year of his exploits with the New Zealand Under 20s, for whom he scored eight tries, often in spectacular fashion. Within 12 months, and barely having blown out 21 candles on his birthday cake, he appeared a shooting star. His confidence was so low for Wellington he could hardly catch a ball, but Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett threw him a Super Rugby lifeline. The turnaround was astonishing. Savea forced his way into the All Blacks and promptly scored three tries on test debut against Ireland. The next four years saw heady times, capped by his bullocking hat-trick against France in the 2015 RWC quarter-final.

But then Savea’s fitness fell away in 2016 Super Rugby, and coach Chris Boyd, correctly, benched him for the crunch playoff games. Still, he was not jettisoned by the All Blacks, but they had a long list of work-ons for him, notably relating to his aerial skills and work-rate.

Funnily enough, Boyd, an astute coach, again dropped Savea in 2017, possibly harshly. Pulled back into the All Blacks, Savea actually played well in the white-hot atmosphere of the third test against the Lions, but did commit a cardinal error in dropping the ball with the line ahead. It cost the win and his All Blacks jersey. And yet, he went away and captained Wellington, enjoyed his rugby, and played effectively, using various Steamers players as hood ornaments on the way to the tryline and a Championship triumph.

There was a much-hyped outing for the UK Barbarians against the All Blacks, in which he opposed little brother Ardie, but the ball hardly came his way.

Surely the All Blacks selectors will not easily jettison Savea’s 46 test tries in 54 matches? Not when there is so much more to come. He may not be capable of interchanging the 14 or 11 jersey with No 15, a ala Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder or Matt Duffie, but there are few more arresting sights in world rugby than ‘The Bus’ in full flight. Doug Howlett’s record of 49 All Blacks test tries are tantalisingly within reach. Might we seen him surpass that mark in 2018 after a rollicking Hurricanes campaign?

Do not bet against it. This bus is still in service.