Tiny Tim rises to occasion for the Chiefs
Tim Nanai-Williams has provided some welcome relief for the midfield headache that's been dogging Chiefs coach Dave Rennie ahead of the defending champions' Super Rugby opener.
Usually a wing or fullback, the diminutive Nanai-Williams looked every bit a centre during the Chiefs' pre-season win over the Hurricanes in festive farmyard conditions at Mangatainoka yesterday.
With Japan-bound Richard Kahui expected to miss the Chiefs' first competition match, against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday, Nanai-Williams' performance had become a focal point.
Marking up against All Black Conrad Smith, the Counties-Manukau flier scored a try and saved several as he shut down out-of-sorts Hurricanes fullback Andre Taylor on the drift defence.
"He's bloody quick as an outside, so as a centre he's lightning," Rennie said after a mistake-ridden but entertaining match that came to life in the final quarter. "He's got great footwork, defends well, he's really good post-tackle.
"We saw him make a really good turnover out there today where he made the tackle, got up and stole it, so physicality wasn't an issue.
"If you end up with three little inside [back] guys then teams might look at it as an opportunity to get some go-forward, but he's pretty aggressive, Tim, and he's a real handful with ball in hand. The more he plays there, the more he'll become accustomed to it."
Rennie confirmed that Kahui, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, was unlikely to make the competition kick-off.
"Yeah, we're pretty certain Richard [Kahui] won't be available. Andrew Horrell is out for a few weeks with the start of a stress fracture in his foot.
"And Charlie Ngatai has a groin injury. We're hoping he might be available next week, but there are likely three midfielders out."
Nanai-Williams was paired with Bundee Aki for most of yesterday's match and the duo produced a number of bright moments, while Gareth Anscombe was solid at fullback.
Aki scored an electric try when he scythed through the Hurricanes backline just after halftime to put the Chiefs up 17-0, after first-half tries to halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow, from a quick tap penalty, and wing Asaeli Tikoirotuma.
Oddly, the Hurricanes made most of the play in the first half and turned down a string of kickable penalties.
However, turnovers, mainly due to fifty-fifty passes, thwarted clean breaks by prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and wing Matt Proctor, both of whom later left the field with head knocks.
The Chiefs were a tad more accurate and had a 10-0 lead at the break to show for their efforts.
Aki would have been disappointed to be bumped off by Reynold Lee-Lo, who slipped the pass to Julian Savea to get the Hurricanes on the board before a frenetic final quarter.
Savea was full of running on the left wing, but it was younger brother and openside Ardie who seemed to spark the home side with his physical defence and energetic ball-carrying. Savea junior scored a try shortly after coming on and a barnstorming Faifili Levave set up a close finish before Anscombe decided the contest with the first penalty attempt of the match.
Another bright spot for the Hurricanes was the return of No 8 Brad Shields, who got through 30 minutes of solid work, while halves Chris Smylie and James Marshall both looked sharp off the bench.
The Hurricanes' first match is against the Blues in Wellington on Saturday night.
Chiefs (Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Bundee Aki, Tim Nanai-Williams tries, Gareth Anscombe con, pen) Hurricanes (Julian Savea, Ardie Savea, Faifili Levave tries, Beauden Barrett con, James Marshall 2 cons) Ht: 10-0
Sunday Star Times