Rugby: Julian Savea concedes he left All Blacks, New Zealand too early for French move

Former All Black Julian Savea concedes he left New Zealand rugby too early, after a move to France in 2018.

Bursting into the national team in 2012, Savea quickly became one of world rugby's premier wingers and earned the nickname 'The Bus' with his hard-running nature.

In 54 tests, Savea scored 46 tries, second only to Doug Howlett for the All Blacks, although the latter needed 62 outings for his 49 - giving him a better tries to game ratio.

Julian Savea.
Julian Savea. Photo credit: Photosport

He was particularly dominant during the All Blacks' successful 2015 World Cup campaign, when he scored a hat-trick of tries in a quarter-final demolition of France. 

But in 2018, a dip in form saw Savea lose his spot in the All Blacks No.11 jersey to Rieko Ioane and he moved to Toulon not long after.

Playing in France's Top 14, Savea struggled to capture his best form, even moving into midfield to get more ball, but his 41 games yielded nine tries.

In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Savea returned to Wellington in the NPC and rejoined the Hurricanes a year later, but while he insists he'd make the same move again, leaving New Zealand when he did was a mistake.

"In all seriousness, I have no regrets," said Savea, 32. "For me, the only thing is I probably would have loved to stay and left after 2019, instead of leaving in 2018.

"I feel like I left too early, that's all."

NZ Rugby's selection policy saw Savea ruled out of the 2019 World Cup, despite his heroics four years earlier.

Julian Savea for the Hurricanes.
Julian Savea for the Hurricanes. Photo credit: Photosport

Instead, Sevu Reece and George Bridge were selected as Sir Steve Hansen's first-choice wingers, as the All Blacks finished third. 

Five years after his French switch, Savea reflects on what he gained from his move to Toulon, which was a largely positive one for him and his young family.

Savea famously fell foul of Toulon's temperamental owner Mourad Boudjellal, who called the former All Black's performances "unacceptable" considering what he was being paid. 

"It wasn't the best experience, but I wouldn't say it was bad," he added. "The lifestyle, the people and the culture I got to experience was awesome.

"They did run things a little bit different over there, but you've just got to adapt. That's not to say I didn't have the best time there, because I did. 

"My family really enjoyed our time and our experience there, we made a lot of friends. We're definitely looking to go back and visit those guys."

Now back in New Zealand, Savea notch his 150th game for the Hurricanes.

Since his debut in 2011, only TJ Perenara (151) has played more games for the club than Savea.

And following in the footsteps of his former teammates - such as All Blacks greats Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith - Savea knows exactly what his achievement means.  

"It's really special for me to get 150," he said. "To play one game is awesome, I remember when I started, it was a dream come true.

"I'm not sure if you remember the backline, but I was taken back by the star power we had in 2011.

"To finally get here, and come back from France and get to a milestone like this is pretty special."

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