Discarded wing Rieko Ioane faces an uphill battle to regain his spot in the starting New Zealand XV and that incline may well be too steep, according to All Blacks great Christian Cullen.
Just three years ago, Ioane made his debut as a 19-year-old prodigy and proceeded to take international rugby by storm. The Aucklander's startling blend of pace and size, combined with his innate finishing ability, suggested he had long-term mortgage on the black No.11 jersey, as he racked up tries in bunches.
In 2017, he earned a nomination for World Rugby's Player of the Year in essentially his rookie international campaign.
But Ioane's indifferent form through Super Rugby, then for the All Blacks in their draw against the Springboks and the heavy loss to Australia, coincided with the rise of both Sevu Reece and George Bridge, and he has seemingly fall out of the selection reckoning.
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He'll play no part in the All Blacks World Cup opener against the Springboks on Saturday, where Cullen - himself, a 60-test try-scoring machine - believes another strong performance by the Crusaders tandem could shut Ioane out altogether.
"It's going to be tough for Rieko, especially if Reece and Bridge play well in this game," Cullen told The Cup 19 podcast.
While Ioane will likely get a shot against some of the lesser teams in the All Blacks' pool - namely Namibia or Canada - the standard of opposition will make it difficult for Ioane to push for higher-stakes games, says Cullen.
"Even if Ioane plays one of those other matches and scores 10 tries, it's going to be tough for him to get back in, unless there's an injury or one of these guys doesn't perform in this game [against South Africa].
"You talk about guys taking their opportunity when someone's out of form, Reece and Bridge have done that, and taken it with both hands. It's going to be hard for Rieko to get back in there."
Ioane is one of 10 All Blacks who played in that draw in July the last time these two sides met who have failed to make the cut this weekend.
One of those not involved in that Wellington test was Ryan Crotty, who has beaten out a strong contending pack to claim the second-five spot alongside Anton Lienert-Brown this weekend.
Cullen says the selectors have nailed that pairing.
"I've always liked Crotty there. You need that organiser, the talker, the guy who can be the glue to that backline.
"Lienert-Brown has probably been the most consistent midfield back. The guy who's been injury-free… and playing pretty well.
Sonny Bill Williams will back up off the bench, where Cullen says he has the most value as the ideal player to unlock the Springboks' vaunted rush defence in the latter stages of the contest.
"Especially when we know what the South African defence is going to bring. We saw in the last World Cup as well, the glimpses in Williams' offload game against a tiring defence.
"If you remember back to Wellington, he took a lot of punishment in that first 60 minutes and he took a lot of sting out of their defence.
"Coming on in the back end of the game, he could be key with his offloading game."
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