Humble Berhampore beginnings, dance competitions against his younger brother and a long association with Oriental Rongotai Rugby Club have taken Julian Savea all the way to the All Blacks. Toby Robson reports.
Savea family dance-offs must have been quite a sight. Julian versus Ardie. Music blaring, their dad, Masina, encouraging them and their aunties judging the two brother's moves.
This was a regular scene at Sunday family lunches and a part of the journey that's created one of the most exciting All Blacks in recent memory.
Julian Savea has always moved pretty well for a big man. He's 1.9 metres and 104 kilograms, and runs like the wind.
And though he's pretty quiet at times, Savea isn't afraid to bust a move.
"When we were kids we were always watching music clips together and then we'd have dance battles," Ardie Savea recalled this week.
"On Sunday we'd have big family lunches and Dad would make us have a dance war for our aunties. It usually ended with one of us crying; mostly it was me. But I'm a better dancer than him. He knows it: he steals all my moves."
That last part, of course, depends which brother you ask, but it illustrates the base of competition, co-ordination, and family that punctuated the boys' upbringing.
Masina Savea and wife Lina were both born in Samoa before immigrating to New Zealand.
They raised their boys in Berhampore but sent them to Newtown School, then Evans Bay Intermediate in Kilbirnie and, after shifting to Strathmore, to Rongotai College.
Masina played rugby for Oriental Rongotai, a second five-eighth for the premiers in the early 1990s renowned for his defence, and Lina was a premier netballer.
Their eldest son was big, fast, and talented. Sporting success came naturally, but things were never easy. Ardie, a member of the New Zealand sevens team, says his parents' hard work has always inspired the boys and they would talk about repaying them if they ever made it big in rugby.
"We didn't have a car when we were young, not till I was maybe 13 or 14, so we were always walking places or catching taxis to training or trying to get rides with someone.
"That's how it was; it was hard sometimes. But we saw that and we always wanted to repay that, for everything they've done for us. Me and Jules saw the hard work they did and how they wanted us to achieve."
All the more special tonight when the Saveas take their seats at Eden Park as their eldest boy pulls on the All Black jersey.
Masina might reflect on his long association with the Ories club, where he's played since the mid-1980s. He put the boys into the junior club and it's played a huge part in Julian's development.
He turned down a sports scholarship to go to Wellington College, to stay with his mates and headed instead to Rongotai where he thrived in drama, athletics and, of course, rugby.
Many of his Rongotai College athletics records still stand – 12.92m in the under-14 shot put in 2004, 5.86m a year later in the under-15 long jump and 43.92m for discus.
He made the first XV in year 10 (fourth form for older readers), ran the 100m in under 11s before he left school, and made Wellington's seven-a-side team at 15.
The manager of that sevens team was Dave Meaclem, a bloke who coached his father in the Ories prems and recalls his J2s team in the 1980s that also included the dads of Victor Vito and Ma'a Nonu.
"Julian and Ma'a played here as juniors, their dads played here, they went to Rongotai College and they came back. That's pretty cool. We regard them as special because they have done it all in Rongotai colours."
And Meaclem says there were no free rides for Ories' All Blacks. "They had to struggle. They learned to struggle. They had to think for themselves, there wasn't a lot of structure at times, but they just played and worked.
"I think [that's driven them]. They know what it means to work hard, they've seen their parents work hard, and we all know that's what gets you to the top."
He remembers taking Savea to the national sevens in 2006 where he roomed him with Cory Jane. "He only got a couple of minutes all tournament, but in the final against Auckland we'd already lost, so we put him out there and David Smith tried to run around him. Julian ran him down and of course Gordon Tietjens was over saying, `Who is that kid?"'
In fact, it's a question people have been posing since the moment he pulled on a pair of boots, although it all seemed to be going pear-shaped last year as he struggled through his first Super Rugby campaign, then lost his confidence during the ITM Cup.
His firstXV coach Phil Jones remembers two things about Savea's first season in the team. One was that he scored 25 tries, the other was that he hardly spoke.
Fast-forward to 2011 and Savea, in a team of established All Blacks, went into his shell again. A year after being named the IRB's junior world player of the year, many wondered if he'd lost his mojo.
They couldn't have been more wrong. This year has seen Savea mature on and off the field.
He has welcomed his first child into the world, daughter Cora, and settled in with his partner, Dawn.
And he's found clarity at the Hurricanes where his communication skills have blossomed as he's run in seven tries.
He says he's worked hard on building the "relationships" in the backline. Where he was previously operating in isolation, he's now bouncing ideas off backline partners Jane and Andre Taylor.
"Last year, first year on the scene, I was a bit shy, a bit sort of no-confidence," Savea said shortly before his All Black callup. "This year I've worked really hard; the boys have helped me and especially the coaches.
"That [clarity] is the difference. It brings the confidence in knowing what I'm doing, what I'm allowed to do and what I shouldn't."
The results have been stunning. Savea is a triple threat. He has long arms with an iron-like fend, huge legs and pace to finish.
But it's been his assured work under the high ball, his decision-making in defence and his workrate that have seen him graduate to the All Blacks.
It didn't escape selector Grant Fox that Savea's match-winner against the Highlanders a few weeks back came on his opposite wing. Nor that he has regularly defused bombs during pressured moments of big matches.
So now Savea will get his chance to dance on the biggest stage of all. His family will be watching and encouraging him again, just as they were at those Sunday lunches.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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