Ardie Savea is an admired part of the wave of Pasifika talent hugely enhancing life in Aotearoa over the last two or three generations. He’s made his mark as an almost incomparable international rugby player despite him seeing his own 103kg, 1.88m frame as, well, definitely not puny but smallish for the demanding, seriously physical line of work that he performs on the sportsfield most weekends.
But there’s more to his rugby than his footy skills — and there’s much more to his life than sport, as you’ll gather from this chat with Dale.
Talofa, Ardie. Let’s start with that first name of yours. I don’t recall any famous New Zealander, Sāmoan or Pālagi, having that name until you started dashing around in your Hurricanes jersey. How did you come by that?
Well, the story is that it came from my godfather Arthur (Ardie) Reihana, who was my dad’s best mate. He was Māori and he lived in Tūrangi. Those guys loved to have a few beers together.
Ardie senior used to play rugby and he was a club legend at Oriental Rongotai. He was small but he played flanker and they say he was the heartiest fulla on the field.
And it’s funny they say that, because that’s like me. I’m small for a flanker and there are often comments that I play with heart.
Of course, our Savea surname comes from my dad’s side, although Saveatama was the full name. The villages that my parents are from are Luatuanu’u and Si’umu, both in Sāmoa.
How did your mum and dad end up in Wellington?
Mum (Lina) was brought up pretty much in the Kiwi way because her family came here when she was still a kid. Her parents migrated here and settled initially in Mt Victoria. Like so many others, they wanted a better life for their kids.
Dad (Masina) came over later when he was in his 20s. He was, and still is, a baker — and he still speaks his native tongue and struggles with English. Mum and Dad, I think, met at a church volleyball tournament.
Do you speak Sāmoan?
I try to. I’ve learned the basics, but I can’t hold a full conversation. And one of my goals in life is to learn to speak Sāmoan fluently.
I’d like to be able to speak it not only for myself, but also so I can have a conversation with my parents and elders. And I don’t want my kids to miss out on their native tongue or their Sāmoan culture. I want them to understand where they come from.
Talking of heritage, was your dad a rugby player?
Yeah. Both Mum and Dad used to play. Mum was a halfback/flanker. Dad was a second five and flanker. He was just one of those fullas straight from the islands who loved making big hits. He tells me all the time that if he hadn’t been injured, he would’ve made the Manu Sāmoa team.
I don’t know how true that is. But, yeah, my parents both played rugby — and my aunties and uncles and cousins all played for our local club, Oriental Rongotai.
Who were your sporting heroes as a kid, Ardie?
The main guy was probably Ma’a Nonu. He was from the same club, same school and same community. So having him achieve big-time brought hope for us.
Yeah, Ma’a was some player. Hey, it’s good to see your Sāmoan presence and language being showcased when you’re being interviewed on the big screen. That’s becoming more acceptable, both in te reo Māori and in Pasifika tongues. It’s a nice touch and it’s becoming a hallmark of New Zealand sport.
Yeah, it’s good to have so many boys speak their native tongue in interviews. Whether it’s te reo Māori or Sāmoan or Tongan, it’s beautiful to see.
I think this generation is more accepting and more open to embracing each other’s cultures. There’s still a fair way to go, but hearing the change in sports interviews is a step in the right direction.
Ardie, did you carry on with academic study as well as your professional sports career?
No, I didn’t. I got sucked into the professional rugby scene, straight after school at Rongotai College. I kind of had no spare time because a professional contract was a full-time job.
When I was 18, I went straight into the Sevens and things progressed from there. So, I haven’t done any academic study over the last 10 years. But me and my wife, Saskia, own our own clothing company — and I love the opportunities and the entrepreneurship as we try to navigate that business stuff.
Do you turn to music for a break?
I like to play guitar. Only four chords, but that means you can sing multiple songs. But I love all sorts of music.
Have you spent time in a choir? A lot of Sāmoan guys have that background, don’t they?
Yeah. But no, I wasn’t in the church choir. And at Rongotai College, I was in the Poly club every year. But among the brothers, without even realising it, that was part of us absorbing the Sāmoan culture and touching base with our heritage — learning the songs and doing lotu (prayer) before everything, and learning Tongan and Fijian songs, too.
You were thrust into the limelight as quite a young guy. But I imagine there were older players and coaches who may have taken you under their wing.
When I made it into the Wellington Lions provincial team and then the Hurricanes, there was a bunch of Pacific Island boys who kept an eye on me. Well, first of all there was Jules, my big brother. They were all close to Jules, so I naturally came under their wing too.
Guys like John Schwalger, Motu Matu’u, Faifili Levave, Ma’a Nonu, Victor Vito and Jack Lam. And they talked not just about footy skills but about other stuff like property and financial skills. I was just in awe of them. Man, it was pretty special for me.
Through the years, as the numbers of Māori and Pacific players keep increasing, there’s been a growing need for our coaches to be on a wavelength with those Pasifika players. To be sensitive to cultural nuances. And some of the coaches haven’t been up to it, have they? Not in rugby league or rugby union.
Yeah, I think it’s so important. I reckon one of the most important factors in a team environment is having some Māori or Pacific staff. Across all the teams, we’ve predominantly seen coaches and managers and other staff of European ethnicity. And they’re not always aware of how important it is to have that understanding of the cultural nuances — and actually that what matters to us and what makes us tick is really different.
So, the first step should be to get more of our people into those roles. In my time in the professional era, it’s been slowly shifting towards that. It still needs attention, though. But, mate, I’ve been in teams where, when they get it right with the Pacific and Māori players, it’s a beautiful thing.
It’s important to have that understanding, that bond. I’m speaking now just on my own behalf, but family’s everything to me, and when a coach shows that he has my back, and when he treats me like family, I’ll go out on the field and do anything for him, for the brothers, for the team.
It was wonderful, wasn’t it, when Tana Umaga got the All Blacks captaincy? You know, a dreadlocked Pasifika guy. And he’s had a positive influence on a whole generation of young Pasifika players. But, then again, you don’t need to be of Pasifika extraction to pick up on these assets. For instance, as a coach, Steve Hansen often came across as a Pālagi with an awareness of that cultural perspective.
Yeah. Steve was awesome in understanding people and, like others, he was learning as well. Sonny Bill played a big part in that, too, by being vocal on that issue and helping the team find a balance.
Obviously, it’s a high performance sport, so you have to find the balance between the high performance side and the cultural side and in how you deal with individuals.
Being granted the captaincy is a real honour in a team. But it’s also a challenge because you’re expected to set an example as a skipper. Not just in the way you play footy but in the way you conduct yourself off the field.
To be honest, I’m still learning about it. And I’m having to make decisions around what’s best for the team, rather than what’s best for Ardie. It’s a massive responsibility. But it’s also a matter of having faith and trusting in God and just letting him guide me through those decisions.
I was kind of overwhelmed at first, but, as you say, not many Pacific people get the chance to captain the All Blacks. So for me, it’s about representing myself, my family, my ancestors and, more importantly, the young Sāmoan kid who looks at the TV and can see hope — and potentially be inspired to dream bigger.
Just in the last little while, we’ve lost three very prominent Pasifika sportsmen with the death of Olsen Filipaina, Inga Tuigamala and Joeli Vidiri — all of them relatively young men. Ardie, what would you say about the need for Pasifika men to prioritise health?
First and foremost, I send my love and condolences to the families of the brothers who, sadly, have just passed away.
But it’s a massive challenge for us now because we’re a generation that has access to all this health information and we need to help and educate our families to live healthy lives, despite the bad habits that colonisation has brought.
Ardie, another hard habit to break among many men is being staunch and stoic and keeping your worries to yourself. But that’s not the pathway to mental health, is it? And you’re one of a number of high-profile New Zealanders who’ve been willing to talk openly about mental health issues.
Well, it wasn’t becoming a father that led me to be open about my feelings. It was me as a man going through some stuff that I needed to go through and heal. In trying to become a better father and husband, and a better man in general, I had to look back, and reflect, and heal.
And I found that when I talked about it with people I trusted, that really helped me. So, that’s why I’m a big advocate of being able to share and talk with those in your close, trusted circle. Over time, I’ve come to learn that we should speak up and reach out for help.
That’s what I went through, and I know it can take a weight off your shoulders. Having brothers and sisters and other family in your tight circle is really important. I’m a massive advocate of mental wellbeing and for us men to be there for each other — and to be kind and loving and to live with empathy for others.
Let’s turn now to your clothing label which I hear has made a mark. Congratulations.
What’s most satisfying about seeing that grow? Your sporting career is certainly on a roll, but so is your business mahi.
I think it’s just one of many of God’s blessings in my life. And I think a lot of our messaging in the clothing is all based on the journey that me and my wife have been on. There are the feelings and emotions that we’ve gone through, and we just chuck those words on some clothes and make it look nice. And there are a lot of people around the world who vibe with it and connect with those messages.
That’s awesome for us financially, but what’s good for the soul is seeing how the messaging makes their day or has them smiling — and us seeing that we’re having a positive impact.
Kia ora. And what about Julian, that big brother of yours? What have you learned from the man who the fans have been calling “the Bus”?
Oh, mate, I was able to learn so much off him, including his mistakes. I have the utmost respect for him.
Our family didn’t have anything until Bus got his first contract. Then he pretty much provided for our whole family without me realising — not even knowing what rent was. And, with Jules paying for that for many years, it allowed me to save and buy my first house.
I look back and honour Bus and what he’s done. Then he headed off to play rugby in France, went through some stuff and came back, and now he’s playing some of his best footy ever.
One of the main reasons I’m where I am now is Jules and the sacrifices he’s made for our family.
Ka pai. It’s been a lovely kōrero, Ardie. I know we’ve shortchanged the rugby scene a little bit, but perhaps we should finish with you telling us about your most memorable moment in sport.
My most memorable moment in sport? I have two, actually. One is playing with my brother. Nothing will ever beat playing with my uso on the professional rugby field and being able to train with him every day. So, that’s one special experience.
Another would be when I got asked to be captain of the All Blacks. I remember going to my room and telling my wife — and just bursting into tears. I hold that honour in really, really high regard.
Talking with you been a pleasure, Ardie. Thank you for giving us your time.
Yeah, all good brother.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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