It's taken a while, but Julian Savea says he finally feels comfortable as a frontline All Black.
So comfortable, in fact, that the naturally shy 23-year-old from Wellington is even finding his voice in an environment where some pretty senior and commanding figures make it an intimidating prospect for a young player to say his piece.
Savea starts on the left wing in the All Blacks' tour - and year - finale at the Aviva Stadium early Monday (NZ time) and he does so with a spring in his step after his two-try comeback effort against the English last weekend.
That came off a draining week in Paris, where the ill Savea picked up a lung infection and ended up requiring hospital treatment on the Thursday. It's a sign of his growing status in the world's No 1 team - he has scored 18 tries in his 19 tests - that he shook that off to play such a crucial role in the Twickenham triumph.
"I think I'm contributing more," said the now second-year All Black. "I feel a lot more comfortable. It's special every year. It's one thing making this team but it's hard to stay in it. My main focus is to try and stay in this environment by working my butt off." Savea had never even met the All Blacks captain before coming into the team in June last year, and the process of becoming comfortable around men like Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Kieran Read has been a gradual one.
"It's very good now, because I'm more comfortable," said the 108kg flyer. "If you don't know me I'm kinda shy, but when you get to know me a bit better. I open up more.
"It's daunting for someone as a kid who was always dreaming of making the All Blacks, then you're actually there. But the transition is easy and they make you feel part of the team very quickly."
Like the ambitious Steven Luatua, Savea also yearns to gain the respect of the senior players.
"It's not just on the field, it's everyday living, making sure you're never late for meetings and trainings, and obviously the performance. I don't talk as much but I try to lead with my actions." Asked what he's added to his game this year, Savea mentioned his high-ball work, but also identified less tangible things like communication and identifying space.
"Most outsides are not that comfortable talking inside and calling moves, but it's something I've learnt and it's going well."
As for the Ireland test, Savea is all about the performance, and not worrying about the fuss over things like perfect seasons until afterwards.
"The emphasis this week is to get everything right to get ourselves ready to put out a good performance. The boys are up for it."
- The Dominion Post
Who was the best-performed All Blacks forward on the northern tour?