Perennial All Blacks prospect Akira Ioane has revealed his private battle with mental health after being omitted from the 2019 World Cup.

Ioane, who made his representative debut for New Zealand as 19-year-old at the Wellington Sevens in 2014, has long been heralded as an elite prospect but has yet to make the leap to test level.

After a roller-coaster season with the Blues in 2019, former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen left Ioane out of the squad, citing his fitness and attitude as road-blocks to his inclusion.

“He’s a tired athlete. Did we see the best of him? I don’t think we did in Super Rugby and other people played particularly well and put themselves in front of him. We know what’s under the surface but we just need him to take ownership of that and turn up and say ‘I’m in’. Once he does that I’m sure he’ll get selected one day.”

The next time we saw Ioane in action was the Mitre 10 Cup, where the 24-year-old says he struggled to find the motivation to play. “In the Mitre 10 I had a little bit of time off and came back and wasn’t really enjoying rugby,” Ioane told Radio Sport in New Zealand.

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“It was one of those years where I wasn’t really enjoying it and over-doing it, trying too hard to impress the wrong people.”

At that point, Ioane took a break from rugby to reflect on what exactly may have been affecting his performance. “A lot of things built up over the years. It’s been real full-on for the last five years, you can see why people take breaks, mentally refresh.”

Ioane realised that he had been giving undue weight to the opinions of fans and media, people who did not understand his life and journey and he needed to shut them out of his mind.

Perennial All Blacks prospect Akira Ioane has revealed his private battle with mental health after being omitted from the 2019 Rugby World Cup.https://t.co/d0hZ0nLysl

“People telling me stuff when I’m out in public… sort of got to me, so just not worrying about all the little stuff or the stuff that’s being said in the media… just shutting that out and sticking to what I know and what I’m good at.”

Having now made 50 appearances across five seasons of Super Rugby for the Blues, along with appearances for the national sevens side, the Maori All Blacks and one appearance for the All Blacks in a friendly game, Ioane has had a remarkable beginning to his career with few obstacles blocking his path to success.

However, a year of patchy form and his World Cup omission forced the athletic number eight to contend with a brand new set of trying situations that saw his mental health suffer.

Generally, the writing has been on the wall for two years since the Lions tour. And the inability to develop Akira Ioane feels like a specific, collective NZ coaching failure.

— Nicola Lamb (@NicolaLamb3) October 27, 2019

“I’m just a dude who thought I could come in and it’d be good. I’m still young and I thought all this mental health awareness stuff was all rubbish… but it hits you pretty hard when you don’t know how to deal with certain outcomes that don’t go your way. It was a real eye-opener, so that’s what I’ve been working on.”

Ioane isn’t the only high-profile rugby player in New Zealand to talk about the mental rigours of being a professional athlete. All Blacks stars Anton Lienert-Brown, Liam Squire, Nehe Milner-Skudder, TJ Perenara and Ardie Savea have all gone public with their battles over the past two years.

In particular, Perenara shared a strikingly similar story to Ioane with NZME in late 2018. “If things disappointed me through injury, selection, poor performances or when I used to read media, I would bottle that and try and harden up and move on because I was told that’s what a man did.

“It takes a lot to be vulnerable, because how people react to your vulnerability is going to allow you to do it”

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen speaks powerfully about the importance of talking about mental health. #RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/pckyHzDDyT

— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 31, 2019

“I feel that took me to some darker spots throughout my career if I wasn’t playing well and not being able to express those feelings through to fear of shame, embarrassment is definitely not the right message to be sending.”

Former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith told NZME in November that looking after the national side’s mental health would be an essential consideration for incoming coach Ian Foster.

“There’s a conversation to be had around an environment that caters for mental health. I’ve read a lot of stuff around some of the players becoming vulnerable, dealing with mental health issues through opening up and talking every day to each other. I think more and more that’s something that has to be dealt with.”

Would a fresh start be best for the former All Black?https://t.co/2qI3dAXLDJ

Meanwhile, Ioane says he is in a good place ahead of the 2020 Super Rugby season and ready to reach a new level of performance for the Blues ahead of a hopeful call-up to higher honours.

“I’m enjoying myself, enjoying being back in the team environment and working hard for the boys and for the Blues.

“It’s little things that I had to work on last year, and I didn’t do that, so… this season I’ll step up and hopefully if I do get my chance, I’ll get my chance.”

– New Zealand Herald 

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