Chiefs hero climbs off sickbed to help champs
Two-try hero Tim Nanai-Williams personified the character of the Chiefs when he hauled himself off his sickbed to deliver the defining performance of the defending champions' Super Rugby opener.
Nanai-Williams woke on match day in Dunedin at 5am and rushed immediately to the bathroom where he spent most of the morning. The last thing he could think about was running out in the unfamiliar position of centre in front of nearly 20,000 fans at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
He told his coaches he didn't think he could fulfil his duties that night against the Highlanders. His energy reserves were on empty and his head was strung out by fever.
They told him not to worry about it, to give everything he could and to trust them that they would remove him from play when it all got too much.
For the record, Nanai-Williams lasted 66 minutes, scored two dazzling game-changing tries and was the principal figure in a statement-making 41-27 victory that saw the Chiefs start their title defence in emphatic fashion.
You wouldn't have known they were down to their third-string hooker (who has yet to play provincial rugby), were forced to play Blues reject Gareth Anscombe at fullback, and missed a quartet of their best backs.
Nanai-Williams' gritty decision to play through his nausea and discomfort must also have inspired his team-mates who took the best shots from the Highlanders and simply overpowered them when the game went on the line.
Many wondered how the little makeshift midfielder with the twinkling feet and the speed to burn would cope in a position where it's hard to avoid physicality.
Cope? He played the house down, standing up Highlanders fullback Ben Smith for a superb first-half try, and then making the defining play of the game in the 65th minute when he swooped on a dropped ball from home flanker John Hardie and dashed 70-odd metres to crush the scarfies in the Zoo intent on celebrating a home victory.
"I'd been sick since 5 o'clock this morning, up and down to the bathroom spewing up and whatnot," said the 23-year-old after the game. "I was just happy we got five points today and now I'm ready to go home and jump in my bed."
His commitment says a lot about what these Chiefs are about. They have a culture about digging deep and doing what it takes.
When Nanai-Williams slipped through a gap for his opening try and made mincemeat of Smith's last line of defence, he said: "I didn't even know I was on the tryline, I was that wasted and feeling really nauseous."
As well as character, the Chiefs have depth and ability. The loose forwards were dominant, led by a commanding performance from Sam Cane who made a big early statement about the pecking order at No 7 in the absence of Richie McCaw.
Their tight five won the set-piece battle and laid enough of a platform for those dangerous backs to run in four scintillating tries. And the bench battle was a resounding victory for the visitors, who showed that they're right in the title mix again.
"We've got pretty good depth, and really good spirit," said Chiefs coach Dave Rennie. "You saw that when we got put under pressure a few times and the boys hung in there and scrambled bloody well and turned some of that into points. We're really happy. It was a great effort."