The Blues thrashing of the Brumbies on Friday certainly raised a few eyebrows – after all this was the side with the worst record in the New Zealand Conference humbling the best Australian Conference outfit – but Melani Nanai offered another reminder of what a special talent he appears to be as his breakout season continues.
We first got a glimpse of what Nanai can do if afforded time and space back in April, when he punished a loose kick from Damian McKenzie by running the ball back from within his own half and jinking his way past hapless tacklers before stepping on the gas to score under the posts (video below).
No one made more carries, clean breaks or offloads in Round 15 and he backed that up with another accomplished performance against the Brumbies, his subtle touches playing a big role in unlocking the Brumbies defence and keeping the tempo up.
But who is he? Well, Nanai turns 23 next month, and is in his second season of Super Rugby after being used as a winger during the 2015 campaign.
Born in Apia, Nanai turned out for the Samoan U20 side back in the 2013 World Rugby U20 Championship, as the side defeated Fiji and Scotland in the knockout phase to finish in ninth place.
Nanai scored three tries across the five matches, before returning to New Zealand to commit himself to Auckland where he has featured in the World Club 10s and also in the ITM Cup. At each of those levels, and now at Super Rugby, he seems to look completely at ease.
One of the most impressive things about Nanai, however, is his size – 6ft 4 under the high ball is ideal for a full-back and, not by coincidence, he bears a passing resemblance to Israel Folau, although he’s far lighter by about 10kg or so.
Where they share similarities is in the way both players are able to cut so strongly back against their own running lines to leave defences toppling over. Nanai seems better suited to the space of full-back in that respect, where he has time to build up his speed and to pinpoint the possible gaps ahead in the defence.
That was on clear display with his try against the Chiefs but also in the way, when facing the Brumbies, he joined the line at the right time, offering subtle passes to his team-mates in the build-up to Matt Duffie’s try.
Nanai has oozed composure all year long so far, and that’s the kind of quality that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will be looking out for. Remember the name.
Ben Coles, Pundit Arena