Versatile Charlie Ngatai targets SBW's jersey
Charlie Ngatai spent the last national provincial championship playing in his old schoolboy position of fullback for Wellington but he has his eyes firmly on Sonny Bill Williams' No 12 jersey at the Chiefs.
Ngatai is one of four players vying for midfield positions in this year's Chiefs Super Rugby side, along with Richard Kahui, Andrew Horrell and Bundee Aki.
It is likely Kahui, who missed the second half of last year's championship-winning season because of a shoulder injury, will again be regarded as the starting centre, leaving the other three to fight over the second-five spot that Williams made his own in 2012.
Ngatai was a schoolboy sprint star and fullback at Gisborne Boys' High School but, on moving to Wellington, he bulked up and found himself moved to the midfield where he has made his mark for the province, New Zealand under-20, the Hurricanes and the Maori All Blacks.
His 2011 Super Rugby campaign was wrecked by a broken ankle and last season he was stuck behind Tim Bateman and All Black Conrad Smith at the Hurricanes.
Dave Rennie came calling and the 22-year-old was signed to the Chiefs for 2013 as plans were put in place to fill the vacancy left by Williams, who has headed back to the NRL in Australia.
"The aim is to push for a starting spot," Ngatai said this week as he met his new team-mates for the first time after the Chiefs resumed pre-season training and the Maori All Blacks joined them for the first time.
"Sonny played most of the season at 12 last year and I just want to try to get the opportunity to play there and see if I can do it for the whole season.
"But there's good competition throughout the team."
While he doesn't quite match up to the impressive physique of Williams, who at 108kg and 1.91m was a real handful for defences, Ngatai is certainly solid at 103kg and 1.88m.
Ngatai is versatile enough to also be able to play centre and fullback and is probably fast enough to play on the wing, though he plays down his speed these days but is hopeful of regaining some of his past pace.
"I put on a few extra kgs and that slowed me down a little [from school days] but it's starting to come off now which is good and, hopefully, we'll see that speed coming back."
Ngatai enjoyed his return to the No 15 jersey for Wellington but has loved his time in midfield and is keen to pursue that area as his career develops.
"Fullback, you've got more time, whereas in midfield you've got to be a lot sharper and be thinking a bit more."
Coming into a new team could be daunting but Ngatai already knows a number of the Chiefs players.
He has been made to feel welcome since his arrival in Hamilton and said it was just a matter of making his mark from the start to try to nail down a starting position.
"It's just getting used to the different calls in a different team and, in a couple of weeks or even a week, I should be there," Ngatai said.