A new exciting back has found his way on to Steve Hansen’s All Black radar.
Damian McKenzie’s non-selection for the All Black Rugby Championship squad dominated headlines and provided a rumble of debate in an otherwise predictable list.
However, it would be easy to miss a new name which was included alongside McKenzie in a two day All Black wider training squad and that name is Melani Nanai.
Being overlooked is nothing new for the 23 year old Nanai. In the 2015 season, he struggled to gain game time as he was locked in a two way battle with the talented Lolagi Visinia. The early part of the 2016 season saw Visinia again preferred, and Blues headlines dominated by the freakish talents of the Ioane brothers, Rieko and Akira.
In round 7 against a strong Chiefs side, Nanai’s brilliance began to show. In his first game at fullback, Nanai clocked up 143 metres and scored an outrageous 55 metre try when he fielded a punt with the entire Chiefs team in front of him. He wound up to full pace, stepped James Lowe, broke the defensive line and outpaced Aaron Cruden to score almost untouched.
Curiously, despite this man of the match performance, Nanai was dropped altogether from the Blues squad for the next game. However, Nanai kept knocking on the door, impressing off the bench and scoring some sizzling tries, showcasing his scorching pace, elusive feints and steps and ability to judge a perfectly-timed run into the backline.
His impact was too much for Blues coach Tana Umaga to ignore and he decided to trial Nanai at fullback, where he would have more space to roam and insert himself into action. The results were electric.
In the final five games of the season, as the Blues went on a too little, too late hot run of form, Nanai averaged 92 running metres per game, beat a total of 20 defenders and made 13 clean breaks. Nanai had emerged from the pack and his only disappointment was that the Blues missed the play-offs just as his confidence was peaking.
Now Nanai is obviously on Steve Hansen’s radar. His utility value to play at wing or fullback equally adeptly means that an All Black call up may only be a few first team injuries away.