New Chiefs outside back Asaeli Tikoirotuma admits he is nervous about his step up to Super Rugby.
Tikoirotuma – who has always been known as Tex to team-mates in New Zealand, who had trouble pronouncing his name – was working as a juvenile escort for Child, Youth and Family in Palmerston North when he got the callup to the Chiefs.
The 25-year-old has come through the New Zealand rugby system the hard way via school, club and then rep rugby in Wanganui, and then club rugby in Palmerston North, since arriving from Fiji as an 18-year-old to attend Wanganui City College.
But such was the impression he made as both a centre and wing on Manawatu and now Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie – including a dazzling try against Waikato in last year's ITM Cup – he is now a fulltime professional.
It is a big step up to Super Rugby and Tikoirotuma knows that better anyone.
"I was pretty nervous last week [against the Rebels in Melbourne] and I was glad I played on the wing because I was more comfortable there than centre for something new like this," he said.
"If it was ITM, I'd jump in at centre straight away. But for this I was really happy to start on the wing, and I got 40 minutes.
"Even though I didn't get much ball there was still a challenge in front of me. You go looking for the ball."
Tikoirotuma is hoping for more game time tonight against the Highlanders in the Chiefs' second pre-season trial in Queenstown, saying the Melbourne outing had helped shake off some of his nerves.
"It helps a bit and it's always good to play against a New Zealand team [like the Highlanders] because they're kind of similar [to what I'm used to]."
He has set personal goals for his first Super Rugby season, starting with training hard and pushing himself in pre-season, and then fighting for a starting position when the competition gets under way. "If I get that then I have another goal after that to maintain it."
Tikoirotuma started playing rugby as an eight-year-old in Suva, badly injured a shoulder when he was nine but has since been free of serious injury.
The 1.87 metres, 97-kilogram flyer has fitted in well to the Chiefs' environment, saying it had been made easy for him.
"It's been easy to fit in. There's heaps of fun, heaps of learning and heaps of competition, too."
Rennie has named a squad of 28 for tonight's match, with Craig Clarke named captain after Liam Messam, who suffered a calf injury, led them last weekend.
With Hika Elliot sidelined with a neck injury and still awaiting scan results, Mahonri Schwalger will make his first appearance for the Chiefs at hooker. Wider training group hooker Marcel Cumming-Toone is also in the squad.
It will be a much better test of where the Chiefs, particularly their forwards, are at than the Rebels match.
"It will certainly be a step up [this weekend]," Rennie said. "I think Melbourne have got some really good players and will be better for the hit-out. But you look at the Highlanders and they came up against the Crusaders last week and found themselves a long way behind by halftime, so I imagine Jamie [Joseph] will have been pretty grumpy this week and they would have been working pretty hard.
"They certainly are a combative side. They'll challenge you at the breakdown and play a wide, wide game, so we'll certainly be challenged defensively, and when we've got the ball they'll make it difficult for us to get quick ball.
"We've got a few plans, but it just comes down to whether we're good enough to implement them."
HOW THEY LINE UP
Highlanders: Kurt Baker, Telusa Veainu, Ben Smith, Glenn Dickson, Hosea Gear, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu, Doug Tietjens, Adam Thomson, Culum Retallick, Nick Crosswell (c), Ma'afu Fia, Jason Rutledge, Bronson Murray. Res: Andrew Hore, Chris King, Hoani MacDonald, Elliot Dixon, Jimmy Cowan, Chris Noakes, Buxton Popoali'i, Nemia Kenatale, Brayden Mitchell, Josh Bekhuis.
Chiefs squad: Ben Afeaki, Sam Cane, Craig Clarke, Shane Cleaver, Aaron Cruden, Marcel Cumming-Tonne, Mike Fitzgerald, Rory Grice, Andrew Horrell, Richard Kahui, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Tanerau Latimer, Fritz Lee, Brendon Leonard, Tim Nanai-Williams, Lelia Masaga, Maritino Nemani, Ronald Raaymakers, Brodie Retallick, Robbie Robinson, Mahonri Schwalger, Tony Smith, Ben Tameifuna, Sona Taumalolo, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Kane Thompson, Scott Waldrom, Jackson Willison.
Kickoff: 5pm at Queenstown Recreation Ground
- Waikato Times
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