"Start Over Again" - Ardie Savea: Refreshed New Life In Japan & England Expectations Ahead of All Blacks Summer Tour - Ruck

“Start Over Again” – Ardie Savea: Refreshed New Life In Japan & England Expectations Ahead of All Blacks Summer Tour

All Blacks back row Ardie Savea believed that it was time for a fresh start, when he left his beloved Hurricanes after a decade of Super Rugby seasons. The World Rugby Player of the Year departed New Zealand following the runners-up finish at last year’s Rugby World Cup, and has since embarked on his new chapter in Japan, with the Kobelco Kobe Steelers.

A leading franchise in the Japan Rugby League One, the Steelers welcomed Savea with open arms when he arrived in the Hyogo region of the country. Under the coaching tutelage of former Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie, Savea gave an insight into his new life in the Far East, and how he is loving the cultural melting pot that the league embodies.

The back-rower is now playing his club rugby alongside or against top international talents every week, as numerous All Blacks, Springboks, Wallabies and Pacific Islanders mix it up with the best that the Brave Blossoms of Japan have to offer. Speaking in a recent JRLO organised press conference, Savea said;

“It’s been real refreshing to come to a new team. Just to start over again and get to know people and kind of figure things out. When you go to Super Rugby when you play for 10 years, you know what’s expected and you know what’s coming. With here I’ve come off the unknown feeling, which has kind of kept me on my toes. And yeah, I’ve just been enjoying and loving every moment in terms of the footy, the team, the environment, and just everything about it. So, so far, it’s been really good.”

“Just coming in and loving Renns, Dave Rennie, and how he’s incorporated culture into the Kobe Steelers. I rocked up and you know, all the boys are singing Samoan, Tongan and Japanese songs. Everyone’s learned them during preseason, just all that kind of stuff. The food over here, the lifestyle around just being able to experience a new culture, and also like the footy here is pretty class here too. Which kind of, not surprised me, but there’s really good players over here that are playing in this competition.”

“I think it’s like, I didn’t know what I was getting into coming to Japan. I just thought like, I’ve played 10 seasons in Super Rugby, I just wanted to try something different. Without knowing that now I’ve been here, I’m like, ‘damn, I needed this’. It’s not else I would have gone back to Super Rugby, done the same thing, and I’m so familiar with everything.

“Without even me knowing being here now, it’s been so refreshing, so good. Even just having like different coaches, like with ‘Renns’ and other foreign coaches in the team, and how they coach and what they see, and just learning and picking their brains. It’s just been really refreshing. So hopefully, I can look back in a year or two and go, being here was a good payoff in terms of how my career goes.”

Savea extended his gratitude to his new head coach, with Rennie being an excellent introduction into rugby’s broader horizons. Speaking on how the former Wallabies boss has overseen the opporations in Kobe, Savea described his coaching approach to be something he’s never experienced before in his professional playing career.

“Yeah, he’s been awesome. I’m loving Renns (Dave Rennie). This style of coaching I’ve never heard of in my career. So it’s actually a real blessing to have come to Japan and you’ve got a real class coach that’s coaching the team. Like I said before, I love his detail in his coaching, and I love the fact that how he incorporates culture and he makes sure or everybody including the families over here are all welcome all together, because you’ve got so many different backgrounds here, especially in the Kobe team. So yeah, I’ve been loving it man, and I’m enjoying my time here with Renns”.

“I talked with Rennie, over a coffee and we talked about how good it would be to run it back with him in Japan. Then Kobe came, so I’m really thankful for Kobe Steelers, for the opportunity and I’ve been loving it so far.”

As much as it has been a step into the unknown for Savea, he arrived at the club alongside former All Blacks running buddies Brodie Retallick and Ngani Laumpe, with the lock taking the helm as the Steelers captain. Retallick returned to Japan for his second stint with the Steelers, having previously enjoyed a season’s sabbatical with Kobelco in the 2020/21 lockdown campaign. Retallick current run in Japan could well last longer than just one season, as the second row stepped away from All Blacks duties after the Rugby World Cup.

However, Savea explained that despite Retallick stepping away from the international fold, the man nicknamed as ‘Guzzler’, is not taking his foot off the accelerator during his time in the JRLO. Retallick is not treating this return to Japan as an easy ride ahead of retirement, as Savea believes he is playing with the same intensity which he brought to the famous black jersey.

“Yeah, it’s been really good mate. Like, over here. A lot of the foreign boys are not forced to, but like, kind of just gravitate towards each other and spend a bit more time together than what we usually do at home. So it’s been awesome having ‘Guzzler’ here, he’s my locker room neighbor. So you know we talk about what’s going on in Super (Rugby) and have a little banters of the Super teams. But it’s been awesome mate.

“I’m also real close with Ngani Laumape who’s here, which has been really good transitioning from I guess New Zealand to coming here and theres a few boys, and a few familiar faces that have made the transition easy.”

“He’s (Retallick) bringing the same intensity. Nothing’s changed because he’s a soldier, work rate horse, awesome leader. He’s just doing his thing over here in Japan.”

Savea had previously experienced the bright lights of Japan with the All Blacks, as he was a key member of the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad that headed out to the Far East. However, Savea explained how during that tournament he was localised to the chaotic capital of Tokyo, and is enjoying the versatile life that Kobe offers, with the opportunity to both enjoy the busy innner-city, or escape to the secluded and quieter areas after an exhaustive day of training.

“I just wanted something fresh. And I didn’t know what I was expecting coming to Kobe and the city, and what was around here. All I’d known was Tokyo when I’ve come with the All Blacks (2019 Rugby World Cup). So being here mate, I find it way better than Tokyo.

“There’s quiet areas, these busy areas that I can go to in the space of 30 minutes. My family loves it, my wife loves it here. So that’s the most important thing. If my family are happy, then I’m happy so, it’s been amazing being here so far. So I’m really enjoying it.”

Sticking with the All Blacks, and despite calling time on his club career in New Zealand, Savea is putting his name forward to be available for selection in the upcoming Summer series against England. As humble as they come, the formidable back-row is not expectant for a call-up into Scott Robertson’s new squad, and recognised how he has to be hitting his best performances in Japan for a shot at Steve Borthwick’s side this July.

England head to New Zealand on the second leg of a three match tour, after Borthwick’s side travel out to Japan for a reunion with Eddie Jones. England take on the Brave Blossoms on Thursday 20th June, before continuing on their travels to Dunedin and Auckland, across both of New Zealand’s islands in early July.

Freddie Steward of England is tackled by Ardie Savea of New Zealand during the Autumn International Series match between England and New Zealand at Twickenham, London on 19 November 2022 (Photo: Micah Crook/PPAUK)

Speaking on England’s upcoming tour, Savea is excited to see how Borthwick’s men fare against the Japanese, given his newfound understanding of their cohesive strengths. The All Black rallied off a handful of Kobelco’s danger-men that England could face problems with, whilst also highlighting the powerful English forward pack and the tantalising talents of fly half Marcus Smith.

“The England forward pack is always a strong force, like a physical set-piece dominant team. And they’re driven around by obviously, Owen Farrell (at the Rugby World Cup), but like Marcus Smith, and he led. I’ve seen like a little bit pop up on Tik Tok and Instagram of how they’re playing, so, Marcus Smith runs a good ship. And their forward pack is strong, and you have to identify them.”

Last Kick Drop Goal celebrations from Marcus Smith of England to win the match during the Guinness Six Nations Match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on March 9th 2024. – PHOTO: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“It’s going to be good. It’s going to be interesting mate. England are real class, as we all know, and also are Japan. Like being here, and playing against some of the guys especially the Japanese boys, that are available for Japan, they can play and they can tackle. My legs have never been chopped so many times over here in Japan! But that’s it, it’s going to be a good game.”

“There’s a few guys in Kobe, Kanta (Matsunaga) winger, I compare him to like the Cheslin Kolbe of Japan. He’s just a freak on his feet, the little winger. And Lee (Seung-sin), our 13 at Kobe, he’s a young player, but he’s a freak. There is plenty more in other teams as well.”

With the fresh competition, Savea’s move to Japan has revitalised the back-row ahead of his return to All Blacks duties this Summer. The powerhouse explained how he does not know what to expect from the Scott Robertson era, as the former Crusaders boss took over New Zealand’s most pressurised post following Ian Foster’s post-Word Cup abdication.

As he constantly experiences new types of opponents, Savea believes that he is only going to get better by treading the uncharted waters. As the current World Rugby Player of the Year, Savea has already reached the mountain top in the eyes of rugby experts, yet the battling back row is determined to achieve new career highs, ahead of his return to the international stage when New Zealand take on England.

“I need to make the (All Blacks) squad first, but so far it’s been refreshing, mentally refreshing. Yeah, so hopefully you know that pays dividends when it comes to All Blacks selection and you know, the All Blacks time. So, but I’m kind of just investing myself into Kobe and trying to kind of win a championship here (first).”

“I’ve had a few conversations with ‘Razor’ (Scott Roberston), just around feedback on my game and what I’m doing, where what I need to improve on or any work-ons. Kind of a minimal mate, but it’s all that I need over here, and terms of how to be better, how to get better and what I’m doing well.”

Savea’s last appearence for the All Blacks saw him handed an unwanted silver medal, as New Zealand were beaten by South Africa in the 2023 Rugby World Cup Final. The Springboks triumphed with a 12-11 score-line, with Savea presented with frequent reminders of the defeat up and down the JRLO. Plentiful starring Springboks call Japan home, as the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit, Faf de Klerk and Damien de Allende run out for their respective sides.

South Africa have long kept the door open for international talents, with their top stars of the past few decades often seen plying their trade outside of the land of the Boks. Take Faf de Klerk for example, as the back-to-back World Cup winning scrum resided in the English North West since 2017, apart of Sale Sharks. The halfback departed the AJ Bell after four years for a life in Japan, and has ran out for the Yokohama Canon Eagles since 2021.

Savea recognises how the modern rugby landscape moves at a rate of knots, and New Zealand may have to alter their approach in order to keep up with the times. The back-row explained how what worked a decade or so ago for the All Blacks may not be working now, as New Zealand look to reclaim their place atop of the World Rugby rankings, and surpass the international heavy hitters of Ireland and South Africa.

“I’d say, you know, times are changing, things are moving fast. The world’s moving, everything’s moving. What worked 10, 15 years ago, maybe can’t work now. I think we’ve just got to be innovative, and smart around what we’re doing. What that looks like, I have no idea. It’s out of my expertise mate, but I do think that we need something.

“Maybe it’s the new coaching group, a new management that’s coming in and bringing fresh ideas. That there (Scott Robertson) could be it, but I have no idea but 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.”

Keep your eyes on RUCK for a part two to this Ardie Savea press conference. Part Two discusses his motivation to beat the Springboks, supporting his beloved Hurricanes, and keeping mentally strong away from the pitch.