Charlie Ngatai: Starting as he means to go on

UNTAPPED TALENT: Second-five Charlie Ngatai was a star on debut for Wellington against Hawke's Bay last weekend.
MAARTEN HOLL/The Dominion Post
UNTAPPED TALENT: Second-five Charlie Ngatai was a star on debut for Wellington against Hawke's Bay last weekend.

Charlie Ngatai will get dropped during this year's national provincial competition, but you get the feeling it won't be because of a poor performance.

Wellington's 18-year-old second-five sensation caught the eye with his strong, direct running on debut against Hawke's Bay last Saturday, forming a highly promising partnership with another young giant, Robert Fruean.

While Ngatai's potential seems unlimited, his youth is also working against him, the New Zealand Rugby Union ruling the Gisborne product can only start three more games in midfield and three at fullback because of his age.

For now Ngatai is just living the dream, having soaked up plenty of attention after Wellington's win in Napier.

"It wasn't too bad. My girlfriend had a few phone calls because we were up in Napier. Everybody was ringing her, telling her I had a good game. I thought I had an all right game.

"Me and Robbie are trying to get our combinations. We're a new partnership together so hopefully it can carry on for the season."

Ngatai has approached Wellington's coaches asking why the NZRU's restrictions can't be relaxed, a fair question given that the health of Hawke's Bay's tacklers looked under more threat than Ngatai's.

"I'm trying to get as many games under my belt as I can really, just trying to further myself and get used to the level and get ready for next year."

Last year Ngatai was starring for Gisborne Boys' High School and New Zealand Secondary Schools, and is relishing the shift south, which was recommended to him by his agent Bruce Sharrock.

"It's a lot different from school rugby, it's all live on TV," he said.

"School rugby's only training after school but down here it's full on every day, 8-5 or 8-3. It's more physical and the skill level and fitness has got to go up another level, more thinking."

Ngatai's role models are fellow Poverty Bay boys Hosea and Rico Gear, "but Christian Cullen was my idol". He hopes to follow all three into the All Blacks.

"Definitely. All I wanted to be was an All Black as soon as I started growing up in rugby."

While pleased with Ngatai's debut, Lions coach Jamie Joseph moved to play down the hype.

"He played well, he's a good boy. I think with players like Charlie, you bring them into the fold in a regular but controlled basis.

"I'm not getting carried away and I don't think he is either. He can handle it physically, the question, I guess, which will hang over his head until the end of the season, is can he handle it physically every week?"

Wellington backs coach Andre Bell said it was tempting to use up Ngatai's remaining midfield starts in the upcoming Ranfurly Shield games against Auckland and Canterbury.

"That's something we're considering and sometimes it's about building momentum," Bell said.

"There's a strong possibility that we'll keep Charlie at 12. He's come up and asked us, `well, why can't I play more games'?

"That's just a ruling the NZRU have put in place. We're going through the right channels and we'll be respecting what they do."

AT A GLANCE

Name: Charlie Ngatai
Nickname: Chisel
Age: 18
Physical: 1.8m, 98kg
Position: Midfield, fullback
Education: Gisborne Boys High
Favourite things - Song: Burning Smoke; Movie: Legends of the Fall; Holiday destination: Rarotonga; Food: Roast pork; Athlete: Tiger Woods; Hobbies: Hunting and fishing

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