Ardie Savea interview: New Zealand must start picking overseas players

South Africa's Handre Pollard (No 10) tackles New Zealand's Ardie Savea during the 2023 Rugby World Cup final - Ardie Savea interview: New Zealand must start picking overseas players

Ardie Savea confirmed that he will be available for the All Blacks’ summer series against England even as he warned that the New Zealand Rugby Union needs to reform its policy on overseas players.

Savea, the World Rugby Player of the Year, signed for the Kobelco Kobe Steelers in Japan’s Rugby League One following last year’s World Cup under a union-approved sabbatical which will enable new All Blacks head coach Scott Robertson to select him for the two-Test series against England.

In a parallel of the Rugby Football Union’s battle to keep England players from moving to France, the NZRU is struggling to resist the economic pulls from the Japanese and French leagues for its top stars.

Yet Savea believes it is becoming antiquated to have a blanket ban on selecting overseas players, citing the example of the Springboks, who have won back-to-back World Cups with a significant portion of their squad based outside of South Africa.

‘Things need to change’

“I think there’s a country that has proven that it works and helps them, and that’s South Africa,” said the back row. “The majority of their team plays here, and they come together and win the World Cup.

“I don’t think it’s going to change drastically, but if there was one thing I’m thinking, it is something that needs to evolve and grow in this space, and this area.

“Whatever that looks like I’m not sure, but I think things need to change. I know it won’t change overnight, but it needs to change.”

Savea suggested the NZRU needed fresh ideas in order to keep up with a changing world.

“Times are changing, things are moving fast, the world is moving, everything is moving,” he said. “Things that worked five, 10, 15 years ago can’t work now, and I think we’ve just got to be innovative and smart about what we’re doing.

“I do think we need something, and maybe that’s the new coaching group, the management, bringing fresh ideas. That could be it. I have no idea, I’m just speaking off the top of my head, but I do think things need to change and evolve, whether that’s instantly or over time.”

Ardie Savea touches down a try despite the efforts of Ireland's James Lowe during the Rugby World Cup quarter-final

Savea says that he has had “minimal” interaction with Robertson, who succeeded Ian Foster following the All Blacks’ World Cup final defeat by South Africa. Asked if he is ready to pull the silver fern back on, Savea said: “We’ll wait and see. I need to make the squad first. So far it’s been mentally refreshing. Hopefully that pays dividends when it comes to All Blacks selection.”

After playing Japan in Tokyo on June 22, England will take on New Zealand in Dunedin on July 6 and then again at Eden Park in Auckland on July 13.

Should Savea be selected then that would set up a potentially fascinating head to head with Ben Earl, who has been England’s standout player for the past 12 years. Asked for his assessment of Earl and England’s form in the Six Nations, Savea had little idea. “Nah sorry,” he said.

“Without sounding disrespectful, I catch a bit of highlights on Instagram, but man, one thing with me I train, I play, I do my analysis and after that, no rugby. I just get away from it.”

This is not a personal slight towards England. Despite being considered the best player in the world by many judges, Savea is not a player who is obsessed by the game. His single-minded focus on rugby ends the moment he leaves the training environment.

“I have always been like that,” Savea said. “Everyone is different and everyone has their way of how they want to be the best. I know what I need to do to be the best and then out of that being the best is being away from the game. It allows me to clear my mind and when you’re free and clear you play instinctive rugby and that’s how I have been operating.”

‘Over here, if we lose three games, the fans still support us’

In that respect, heading to Japan has been of huge benefit to the 30-year-old in escaping the goldfish bowl of New Zealand rugby. “I didn’t know what was coming in going to Japan,” Savea said. “I just thought I had played 10 seasons of Super Rugby and wanted to try something different.

“Now I’m here I’m like ‘damn, I needed this’. I would have gone back to Super Rugby, done the same thing, and been so familiar with everything.

“Without me knowing, being here has been so refreshing, good, even just having different coaches like Rens [Dave Rennie] and other foreign coaches in the team, how they coach, what they see. I’m just learning and picking their brains, which has been really refreshing.

“Hopefully I can look back in a year or two, and being here was a good pay-off, in terms of how my career goes.”

Savea also said rugby fans in Japan compared favourably with supporters in New Zealand.

“The biggest refreshment for me here – and no disrespect to the fans and stuff – but over here if Kobe lost three games the fans will still turn up to our stadium with the signs and posters. They still love us, regardless of whether we win, lose or draw. Over in New Zealand, if you lose one game then they are like ‘drop his ass’.

“You just scroll through Facebook and you see an article where you are tempted not to read the comments but you read the comments and they say ‘this guy sucks, drop his ass’. You have none of that in Japan.”