Melani Nanai–Going from Strength to Strength in Super Rugby

Super Rugby Rd 5 - Blues v Bulls
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When speaking with sports people, it is always ideal to catch them after a win. Their satisfaction is obvious, and resonates in their answers. And this was true when Last Word On Rugby spoke with Melani Nanai, after the Blues had dispatched the visiting Bulls Super Rugby team from Pretoria.

The Blues left winger had a productive night–scoring a try and holding his opposite at bay. The visitors were not in any attacking mood, so he looked eager for opportunities, and completed a wonderful attacking phase to score his second try for 2017.

One of the six matches on this Super Saturday, the Auckland team had a convincing result, and the reflection on the match outcome from Nanai was “the boys went out tonight and played the whole 80 [minutes].

“we’re really proud of that performance.”

Melani Nanai–Going from Strength to Strength in Super Rugby

Injury free, the 1.94m winger is enjoying being a key part of the current Blues squad. He told LWOR “playing outside Matt Duffie and Justin Collins, with Rieko Ioana and George Moala, and game breakers like that is just exciting.”

And that excitement is what the fans will admire. The Blues have not had the most consistent start in 2017, but last weekends result will bring more fans along to the next game: Western Force this Saturday, 5:15pm. Wins get people into the stadium, and players confidence comes from winning.

Nanai is also a confidence player. He knows that putting in the little bit extra is what is needed now, and in the long-term future. On his fitness, he admits to being happy and yet knowing there is room for improvement.

“A bit of both. I’m happy, but then again there are some work-ons I’m focusing on at training.”

When asked about his final try, he was humble. “Good skills from the forwards, and we worked on that the whole week. The edge play, just getting those draw-and-pass plays, and yeah I scored.”

And over his three seasons so far with the Blues, there have been a mixed bag of results. Never reaching the quarter finals, Melani and the 2017 squad will want to make more steps-up this year.

Gaining His Big Steps-Up in Auckland; via Samoa

In his third year with the franchise, Nanai is a naturalized Jafa [Just Another Fantastic Aucklander]. That is the term afforded to the city’s residents by Sir John Kirwan, Nanai’s first Blues head coach. He gave Nanai more time on the field, exposed him to the higher level of rugby before Tana Umaga took over in 2016.

And that progression has been constant over this young man’s career. Melani was born in Apia, and came to Auckland, New Zealand for his education. That applied to his study, but also his sporting accomplishment. A natural athlete, Nanai is tall and has the required speed. A De La Salle College student until his family repatriated him back to Apia, the big city would draw young Melani back in 2011.

Settling into the Otahuhu club, it opened avenues to the large Auckland rugby scene. A competitive environment, but it gave Nanai the opportunity to make a step-up for Samoa, at the 2013 IRB Junior World Championship. That was his first taste of the ‘big time’ and showed he was gaining his big ‘steps-up’ via Samoa representation.

Melani Nanai of Auckland makes a break during the round eight ITM Cup match between Auckland and Northland at Eden Park on October 3, 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

From Under 20, to ITM Cup, to Super Rugby

His transition is similar to others. The steps on the ladder of professional rugby see the player develop, or struggle. Nanai maybe the first to admit he has seen times of struggle, but fortunately he has never had to do the ‘undie run’ for players not scoring a try.

While Nanai will hardly have to endure that ignominy, his skill-set is wide. A prolific kick, good hands and always  at the ready to counter-attack. That range allowed him to progress from the ITM Cup/Mitre 10 Cup squad to the Blues and last year, work with the *All Blacks wider training squad. Those steps were courtesy of some outstanding moments – see the below video, of his outstanding try in Hamilton, 2016.

Those moments only need to become more common, for another step-up to the International stage. But for whom? Nanai was called into the All Blacks wider-training squad last year, and enjoyed a cameo performance for the Barbarians; when drawing 31-31 with South Africa.

International Experience May Lead to Crucial Decision

Nanai said that the Baabaa’s trip was “a great experience, getting to meet all the players; South African and Australian Internationals. It was a lot of fun, big atmosphere and the crowds” and LWOR then went on to ask Nanai what his ambitions were [at International level]?

“You know everyone has that dream to play for the *All Blacks, but as I was born in Samoa so it gives me another option”. At this point, he seemed to indicate that; after focusing on the Blues campaign, he will need to look at those International options. Current Samoa head coach Alama Iremia may come calling–but firstly, Nanai and the Blues will stage the first Super Rugby game in Samoa.

The Blues host the Reds in Apia, Samoa on Friday June 2, in a landmark occasion for the competition–and significant for Nanai. Hopefully if selected to play, that will be a huge honour. “Playing in front of my wider family, cousins and Uncles and Aunties, it’s like they gave you so much, it will mean heaps for me. Pretty much giving back to them.

“Playing with these guys, in my hometown will be very exciting.”

The Auckland team; known as the most populated Polynesian city in the Pacific, are making steps towards growing the game, and SANZAAR are fulfilling their pledge to support Pacifica Rugby. That will bring a smile to plenty of faces, and people and family known by Nanai, Jerome Kaino and other players with Samoan heritage.

Excitement the Key Factor for the Blues in 2017

Again, Nanai uses that word excitement. That is a key contributor to his; and to the Blues success. If coach Tana Umaga can keep the side motivated, then the belief he is building will transfer into performances. That could lead to more wins, more confidence and for Nanai–going from strength to strength in Super Rugby.

“Main photo credit”