McNicholl tipped as high-flier

HIGH-FLYER: Canterbury player Johnny McNicholl scores a try.
HIGH-FLYER: Canterbury player Johnny McNicholl scores a try.

Johnny McNicholl is a great big slab of humanity.

In his playing day so, too, was his coach Tabai Matson.

McNicholl hasn't always exhibited the rugby nous or skill set of Matson. But the Sydenham wing is now being touted as one of the emerging talents in a star-studded Canterbury backline by Matson, who has been impressed with the way the 21-year-old is progressing.

"When you cross a phenomenal athlete, with a good rugby brain and some real courage - you get Johnny McNicholl,” Matson said.

“There is no doubt in my mind that during this campaign he will push himself toward other opportunities higher up."

It's a glowing reference from a coach who boasts a backline with plenty of Super Rugby talent, and a backline McNicholl feels he is really starting to gel with.

The quietly spoken McNicholl admitted he felt a little star-struck during his debut season last year but that this year things were a lot easier.

He attributed that to some hard work at club level after being given a few minor issues to tweak during the off-season.

“I'm feeling quite a bit more confident this year, both around the boys and also when we are out on the field, " the 21-year-old said.

“It can be quite daunting when you're playing in a back line of guys who all play Super Rugby, except you, but they are awesome to be around, and I'm learning heaps off them.

“After last year I needed to work on the high ball and also on my defence to make sure I was putting good hits in.

“I played centre for most of the season for my club side because it seemed a better option due to the higher number of tackles you need to do in that position as opposed to at fullback or on the wing.

“I think I've improved in both aspects.

"I'm actually really happy with where I am at right now, and just looking forward to a good season."

A brilliant try in Friday night's loss to Tasman showed McNicholl is going to be even more of a threat this campaign than he was in the last, and it did enough to impress Matson into giving him the nod to start again when Canterbury play Auckland tonight.

With Sean Maitland out for the season, McNicholl will get plenty of opportunities outside of tonight's match due to his ability to play at fullback.

Matson described him best as a wing, who could play fullback, but if it came down to it McNicholl would choose the No 15 jersey every time.

“I just want to get my hands on the ball as much as I can, so I would have to say fullback.

“But I'm pretty happy just doing my best for the team at the moment, and making sure I really enjoy my rugby."

The Press