NZ coach stirs debate, comparing Savea with Lomu
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Head coach Steve Hansen has stirred debate in New Zealand by saying All Blacks winger Julian Savea is “probably” a better player than the great Jonah Lomu.
The comment, made by Hansen in South Africa on Thursday as the All Blacks prepared for their last Rugby Championships test against the Springboks, immediately prompted impassioned discussion on talkback shows and online forums.
While Lomu retired from international rugby more than a decade ago, after scoring 37 tries in 63 tests for New Zealand, he remains one of the sport’s most respected and identifiable figures.
Savea has played for the All Blacks for only three seasons but already has 27 tries in 27 tests, quickly rising up New Zealand’s list of all-time test tryscorers.
The 24-year-old Savea, who also wears the No. 11 that Lomu wore, has regularly been compared with his famous predecessor because both players have speed in combination with size and strength.
Responding to a reporter’s question at a news conference Thursday, the usually-guarded Hansen said of Savea: “I think he’s probably better,” than Lomu.
“He can do more things than Jonah,” Hansen said. “Jonah was a great player but I think Julian has got more to his game, to be honest, and that’s saying something. I genuinely believe that.”
Hansen listed Savea’s attributes: “He’s very good going back, under the high ball, with the ball on the ground, as well as being a greater carrier, so I think he’s right up there.”
Debate quickly raged over Hansen’s comments, with an almost even spread of support for both players. In an online poll conducted by the New Zealand Herald newspaper, 56 percent of respondents said Savea was a better player, 33 percent said he isn’t yet but probably will be, and 11 percent said he will never match Lomu.
Fans of Lomu argued that the blockbusting winger became one of the greatest players of his era despite battling neprotic syndrome, a kidney disorder that forced him to undergo a transplant operation in 2008.
Savea’s fans said while Lomu was a devastating attacker, he lacked the defensive skills and tactical ability of the current player.