Nanai-Williams thinks big after midfield shift

Last updated 16:29 20/02/2013

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Tim Nanai-Williams had never played centre before last weekend's trial match in Mangatainoka, but tomorrow night he will be wearing No13 when the Chiefs kick off their Super Rugby campaign in Dunedin.

As expected in the absence of the injured Richard Kahui and Andrew Horrell, Nanai-Williams was yesterday named to start at centre against the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

It is a big call for a young player who has been mostly a wing and fullback in his Super Rugby career and has had some games at second five-eighth in the past for Counties-Manukau.

''From pre-season thinking I was playing outside the centres [again this year] and while there was a bit of talk that I was back-up for centre I didn't know it was going to come this early,'' Nanai-Williams said.

''The coaches have been in my ear for a while about getting familiar with the role at centre and I played a lot at 12 before at Counties but I hadn't had a game at centre until last week.''

He admits he has never been so nervous before a game as he was against the Hurricanes last Saturday, but views it as a big opportunity to add another string to his bow.

''I didn't really know how it was going to pan out and I guess I really just had to get out there and adapt and play what was in front of me, which is what Rens [head coach Dave Rennie], Smithy [assistant coach Wayne Smith] and Straws [assistant coach Andrew Strawbridge] have encouraged me to do.

''Also in defence there is a lot of traffic there so I've got to really read plays and stay connected with my boys inside me and make decisions about whether to go in or get out and make the next tackle - it's a lot more work than playing fullback.''

He might only be 1.82m and 90kg but he is very strong with exceptional leg drive and speed of foot and wants to prove he is not too small to play in midfield or to eventually wear a black jersey.

''I guess with guys like Ben Smith [Highlanders] who can play centre and also wing and fullback and it's worked well for him - he's an awesome player and an All Black as well - I feel I can go in that direction too,'' Nanai-Williams, 23, said.

''Everyone's always harping on about how small I am. They call me Tiny Tim, I hear, so there's a lot for me to prove just on the physical side of it.

''I need to be a lot smarter making decisions and I've been training hard on my fitness so

I can get around the park. I'm not the biggest person so I have to use my speed and agility while still being aggressive,'' he said.

Meanwhile Bundee Aki got the green light to play alongside his old schoolmate Nanai-Williams at second five-eighth yesterday and Charlie Ngatai also got a medical clearance yesterday to back them up from the bench.

But the rest of the injured backs, as expected, did not make it back and back-up first-five Gareth Anscombe will start the match at fullback, and likely first-choice goal-kicker with pivot Aaron Cruden carrying a niggling groin injury, while another newcomer in Patrick Osborne has been given the nod ahead of Lelia Masaga on the right wing.

''Lelia had his first 40 minutes last week after being out injured with that knee so obviously we're keen to get a bit more training into him,'' Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie said.

''So he'll be better suited to come off the bench and go berserk for 30 as opposed to trying to last 80, while Patrick gives us some size in a reasonably small backline.''

Auckland prop Pauliasi Manu has headed off Toby Smith for the loosehead starting spot, Rennie saying he had been the form loosehead in trial games after making some ''massive shifts physically''.

The rest of the front row was named as Ben Afeaki and Hika Elliot, but Elliot tweaked a calf muscle at training yesterday afternoon and Mahonri Schwalger may have to be brought into the team after initial plans had been to rest him in the opening game as he returns from off-season surgery. A decision will be made today.

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Chiefs: Gareth Anscombe, Patrick Osborne, Tim Nanai-Williams, Bundee Aki, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Fritz Lee, Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (c), Ben Afeaki, Hika Elliot, Pauliasi Manu. Res: Rhys Marshall, Ben Tameifuna, Michael Fitzgerald, Tanerau Latimer, Augustine Pulu, Charlie Ngatai, Lelia Masaga.


- Waikato

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