Great player aims to be better man

Great player aims to be better man

Ardie Savea's well-being range includes four different mental health related messages PHOTO: Ardie Savea Clothing

There is much more to Ardie Savea than the man you see on the rugby field, he talks to Adam Blackwell about the man he has become, and the difference he is trying to make.

With his iconic tightly curled hair, worn ears illustrative of his 87 Hurricanes appearances, and a smile that refuses to fade, Ardie Savea sits sipping his coffee. Afforded a little more freedom thanks to a Super Rugby bye-week, line-out training had been swapped for a morning trip to Staglands with his wife Saskia and young daughter Kobe.

Dressed in track pants and a black and red chequered jersey which is draped over a white hoodie, he says he likes to dress casual these days. The 25-year-old All Black is, however, known for being adventurous in his fashion choices.

“I’ve got a rep of wearing some crazy as stuff at [our] training base,” he says. “When Ben Franks was at the Hurricanes bro, I rocked up in these like flash as crazy pants I bought from Japan and he looked at me and was like ‘what the…?’”

Savea, who has recently been nominated for personality of the year at 2019 Wellington Sports Awards, is having one of his finest seasons yet on the rugby field. He is, however, far more than the barnstorming loose-forward that my high school rugby coach once likened to a washing machine due to his ability to spin and wiggle his way through tackles.

He has a keen interest in fashion and wants to be an inspiration for others, all while himself still growing as a man. The most obvious example of those two ambitions is the latest collection from his clothing brand, Ardie Savea Clothing. Known as the “Wellbeing” range, the collection of t-shirts, designed by Savea, all carry important messages. Including designs that promote being yourself, not comparing yourself to others, and the importance of communicating and having conversations.

Savea says that starting a clothing brand has been a “dream come true” but over time he lost a sense of purpose. Due to his profile, the brand got a lot of support at the beginning, but being a well-known rugby player doesn’t guarantee success. He has learnt a lot about marketing strategies and what goes into running a business. “Never rely on who you are,” he says.

The “Wellbeing” range is an opportunity for Savea to find that purpose and create something that is more than just a t-shirt. He says it is a way to spread positivity and create discussions about important topics. As part of that greater purpose, $10 from each t-shirt sold is donated to I Am Hope, an initiative of mental health campaigner Mike King and part of The Key to Life Charitable Trust.

“I admire Mike King and the work he does for New Zealand and mental wellbeing. I’m a huge believer in him and what he’s doing,” Savea says.

Along with providing counselling services, I Am Hope focuses on what people in a good mental space can do to help others. Rather than a crisis management approach, I Am Hope encourages people to be supportive of others and allow those who need help the opportunity to open up and ask for it.

King, who was recently made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his work in mental health, says the donations enable them to “get around schools and communities and spread the message that we all have a role to play in everyone’s mental well-being.”

The pair met when King reached out to Savea after he had followed the I Am Hope Facebook page and posted a few comments on the work it was doing.  

Experiencing challenges is a normal part of life and King says having role models such as Savea who are willing to be vulnerable, start conversations, and open up about things is what society really needs right now. King added that mentally he had not been in a great space recently and Savea had been reaching out to him and making sure he was good.

“He’s a champion mate, I’ll tell ya, I’ve got nothing but glorious things to say about that young man. He is wise beyond his years,” King says of Savea.  

Savea has loved clothing since he was a kid and enjoys watching new trends, particularly keeping an eye on stars in America so he can try to implement their styles over here. Apart from one art design class he took at Rongotai College he hasn’t had any formal training in design or fashion. Instead, he is self taught and seeks inspiration from sources in New Zealand and further abroad.

One of those inspirations is former NRL player Isaac John who started his own clothing brand YKTR. John, who played 35 NRL matches and one test for the Kiwi’s, shares some of his insights on his podcast The Ice Project.

“I’ve just been smashing his podcast and just learning and growing through him,” Savea says.  

Savea also has some big inspirations closer to home, becoming a father in December last year. He says that the birth of his daughter Kobe was a moment that made him really think about what kind of person he wanted to be.

“That’s where my journey of trying to better myself as a man came, when she came along it kind of put a lot of things into perspective. That’s where I had to be a better man, a better father, a better partner to my wife.”

Being there for his young family has helped with his own mental well-being. He says it’s all about being able to talk, learning to be vulnerable and being able to open up to people. Whether that is with his wife, or the “life group” of young men that he regularly meets with on Wednesday nights to discuss things from issues they are having to common interests.  

Having happy and healthy relationships at home is not only beneficial for his mental wellbeing but his performances on the rugby field. He says a lot of what he does to get ready for a game doesn’t have anything to do with rugby, rather spending time with his family and making sure he is in a good space mentally as well as physically.

“If I thought about rugby 24/7 I’d do my head in.”

In the past he thought rugby was his whole life. After a loss or bad performance, he would take his bad mood home with him and it would hang over him for the whole week until he played well. As he has progressed throughout his career he has realised that “rugby is just a game” and it is okay to be disappointed, but you have to put it behind yourself as quickly as possible. “Once you leave the stadium, for me I’m happy again because I’m with my family.”  

The leadership shown by Savea on the field and in the community should not come as a surprise as you look back on his earlier days. In 2011, as well as captaining the Rongotai College 1st XV for the second year, Savea was named head prefect. Principal Kevin Carter, who has been the head of Rongotai College since 2009, describes Savea as a “damned hard worker” and a “wonderful young man.”  

There is no mistaking how well respected Savea was by Carter and his fellow Rongotai College students. “I’ve been teaching in boys schools for 35 years and I’ve never come across anyone, you know, better than Ardie Savea in terms of the all-round person,” Carter says.

Savea is still involved with Rongotai College often returning to catch up with teachers or have a chat with students. The impression he made while at the college is also long-lasting, as a line he once said in assembly is still being used today. “Don’t be the boy who has to be told to do something, be the man that just does it,” Carter recalls.

Thinking back further into his childhood, Savea says that his family didn’t have much, but he was grateful for everything that his parents had done for him and his brother Julian. Growing up in Berhampore, his family didn’t own a car until Julian got his first professional rugby contract, so walking and public transport was how they got around. “That’s probably where we got our speed,” he says.

Oriental Rongotai Rugby Club was a big part of his childhood and is still important to him today, as he enjoys going back to watch and train with the team. Despite not having a car, his parents Lina and Masina would find a way to get him and his brother to games or training. It didn’t matter whether they were playing at their home field the Polo ground, or out in the Hutt Valley, his parents would make it happen.

“They did everything they could for us to be in this position, a lot of our success bro, goes down to them, we wouldn’t be here without them,” Savea says.

Just as his parents were for him, Savea wants to be a positive influence in Kobe’s life. His ambitions in helping people extend further than his own family however, as he strives to be a source of inspiration and a role model for others.

“I’d love for people to remember me for the man I was. How I treated people, that’s who I’d want to be remembered as, what I did for the people bro.”

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Article by Adam Blackwell

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