Motivated Julian Savea ready to fire for grateful Wellington Lions
Don't expect to see Julian Savea spend the upcoming Wellington Lions season sulking on the wing.
The 54-test veteran was the notable absentee when the All Blacks' Rugby Championship squad was named this week. Having appeared in two of New Zealand's four matches this year, and had an indifferent Super Rugby campaign with the Hurricanes, the 27-year-old was relegated to the provincial ranks.
Savea was at the Lions' season launch on Friday, but excused from media duties. As a Super Rugby player, he was entitled to still be on leave but attended the launch as a show of his commitment to Wellington's cause.
That left new Lions coach Chris Gibbes to talk about what might be coaxed out of the man they call "Bus."
"Some energy and some excitement," Gibbes said.
"This is his team and I want him to play and get excited and to lead some standards on and off the field. In the way he trains, the way he goes about training, the way he wants to apply himself in the game we've got some young guys that can learn from him and that's what I'm looking for."
Savea, a bit like Ma'a Nonu before him, is exceptionally proud of the route his rugby career has taken through Rongotai College, the Oriental-Rongotai club and then Wellington. Sure, he'd love to be preparing for a Bledisloe Cup test next Saturday, but there's a lot of pride in being a Lion.
"I know one thing; he is excited to play for Wellington and he wants to have a good year and that's the main thing for us," said Gibbes.
No-one enjoys seeing Savea languish on the wing or fail to grasp opportunities. His Super Rugby and All Blacks form hasn't been too spectacular in recent times, so let's hope provincial footy can provide him with the vehicle to show the running skills everyone remembers him for.
Savea will have Hurricanes Jeff To'omaga-Allen, Leni Apisai, James Blackwell, Sam Lousi, Kemara Hauiti-Parapara, Wes Goosen, Ben Lam and Brad Shields for company this season, while there's a chance forward Vaea Fifita might be released from All Blacks duty at some point. Shields will captain the team for a fourth campaign.
A small section of the Wellington rugby community has been in an uproar since the release of a wider Lions training group that didn't contain any players from the champion Old Boys-University club. Hopefully the selection of loose forwards Teariki Ben-Nicholas and Will Mangos, midfield back Regan Verney and the versatile Goosen in the actual squad will mark the end of those complaints.
Other features of the team include the return of Melbourne Rebels first five-eighth Jackson Garden-Bachop and selection of Taranaki-raised Waikato loan player Du'Plessis Kirifi.
The Lions start their campaign against Manawatu in Palmerston North on Sunday, having lost pre-season clashes with the Turbos and Tasman. Gibbes wasn't hugely enthused by either of those results, but they at least provided a vehicle for players such as openside flanker Kirifi and Verney to force their way into the final squad.
TJ Va'a, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Matt Proctor, Greg Foe, Reggie Goodes and Losi Filipo were the players unavailable due to injury.
Wellington Lions: Malo Tuitama, Julian Savea, Ben Lam, Wes Goosen, Levi Harmon, Billy Proctor, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Regan Verney, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Dan Kirkpatrick, Trent Renata, Kemara Hauiti-Parapara, Carlos Price, Sheridan Rangihuna, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Du'Plessis Kirifi, Will Mangos, Brad Shields (c), Galu Taufale, James Tuiatua, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Sam Lousi, James Blackwell, Joe Apikotoa, Tolu Fakamokioa, Alex Fidow, Vince Sakaria, Jeff To'omaga-Allen, Leni Apisai, Asafo Aumua, Sitiveni Paongo.