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Akira Ioane: Heir apparent to Jonah Lomu?

updated 6:35 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Akira Ioane made his debut for New Zealand rugby sevens last month
  • The 18-year-old has already been compared to Jonah Lomu
  • Ioane says he is still acclimatizing to life as a professional athlete

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(CNN) -- His name means "bright light" in Japanese, and at the tender age of 18 he's already shining on the global rugby stage.

Less than one year out of high school, Akira Ioane made an impressive debut at the HSBC Wellington Sevens last month as his native New Zealand romped to tournament victory.

The Auckland teenager's pace, power and try-scoring exploits have even drawn comparisons to All Blacks rugby legend Jonah Lomu, the rampaging winger who first appeared at the 1994 Hong Kong Sevens before going on to star at the World Cup in South Africa one year later.

Akira Ioane celebrates after winning the Wellington Sevens title in February, when New Zealand beat South Africa in the final at Westpac Stadium. Akira Ioane celebrates after winning the Wellington Sevens title in February, when New Zealand beat South Africa in the final at Westpac Stadium.
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But the softly spoken teenager -- who at 6 foot 4 inches and 227 pounds (103 kg) is not quite as hulking as the giant Lomu -- is eager to offer a Maori sidestep to what he sees as early career hyperbole after appearing at just two events on the international sevens circuit so far.

"Jonah has done great things for New Zealand and the All Blacks sevens and I don't really like being compared to him," Ione told CNN's Rugby Sevens Worldwide show.

"(Lomu) sort of took the world by storm. I'm just a normal 18-year-old boy making his way, nowhere near what he was when he was this age."

Despite the glowing reviews his early performances have garnered, Ioane feels he is still adjusting to life as a professional athlete.

He was turning out as a back-row forward for New Zealand's school select XV as recently as last year before proving his worth for the Auckland side at the New Zealand National Sevens and World Club Sevens.

New Zealand sevens coach Gordon Tietjens recently described Ioane as someone with "all the attributes and skill set of a fine rugby player," albeit on a sharp learning curve.

Accordingly, the transition from the 15-a-side game he excelled at in high school to the slicker, faster international sevens code has not been easy going -- not least nutritionally, with fast food now off the menu for Ioane thanks to Tietjens' strict regime.

"It's been hard coming from a 15s background, where you don't have to be as fit as you are in sevens. 'Tietj' has made me work hard," Ioane said.

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"Back in high school I used to have pies every day, McDonald's whenever we were out, but now with the sevens it's a lot different. 'Tietj' is always watching what we eat, getting the right food into us so we can perform on training days and on game day."

This new focus on diet and conditioning seems to be paying early dividends.

Ioane's strong debut showing in Wellington was followed up with another solid performance at the Tokyo Sevens this past weekend (where New Zealand finished fourth behind England, South Africa and tournament winners Fiji) and he has been selected for this weekend's prestigious Hong Kong Sevens.

Turning out in the Japanese capital, however, was a special moment for Ioane, who spent much of his early childhood in the city.

His father Eddie was a professional rugby player there for six years in the late 1990s and Ioane revealed that's where his first name comes from.

"With dad playing in Japan, I sort of guess it felt right for him to give me and my brother Japanese names. My name means 'bright light,' I think, and my brother's name is Ricoh (after the club his father played for in Tokyo). So, two Japanese names and I guess it's special," he said.

Ioane's father also played internationally for Western Samoa at the 1991 Rugby World Cup, reaching the semifinal stage after a famous victory over Wales. His mother, meanwhile, represented New Zealand's international women's team.

This rich rugby heritage ensures that the young Akira has plenty of confidantes to turn to for advice if required -- but it hasn't stopped his parents from insisting he also prepares for a career outside the game as a fallback.

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"They're proud but they also want me to have an education outside of rugby, balancing sport and study and just making sure that I don't fall behind in classes and things like that," said Ioane.

"You're only one injury away from career over and then what do you have to fall back on? So yeah, they're just making sure I have that and getting my priorities right as well as doing well in sevens."

With the Hong Kong event approaching this weekend, Ioane's focus is solely on rugby for the time being.

He hopes to build on what he has achieved so far and cement his place in Tietjens' plans for the remainder of the sevens season.

"I've enjoyed it, even though it's hard and I've struggled sometimes, it's what you have to do to be a professional rugby player," he said.

"If you've been picked for the team it shows that you obviously have potential."

See also: Land of the rising scrum

See also: Sevens vs. the NFL

Interactive: Sports ultimate world tour

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