Saturday, October 20, 2007

Naikatinis talents, skills raise eyebrows in New Zealand

Watching Api Naikatini play rugby, it seems absurd that he has spent much of the past few years with his head crushed between front rowers thighs.

The 22-year-old has athleticism and skill most with a 1.95m frame can only dream of. His loping one-handed runs with the ball in hand, skilful lineout work and seemingly tireless work around the park have made Wellingtons blindside flanker one of the finds of the season.
But till this season, Naikatini has had to temper much of that natural ability to fulfill the less glamorous role of a lock.

"I actually played first-five till under-14s. I used to like to do a few dropped goals and the goal kicking, but the under-16s put me to lock because I was growing too big," he said laughing. "It is quite new to me playing at six. I have been a lock for so long, but its been quite easy to adjust once you get some advice from the experienced boys."

Naikatini has been a revelation in his first year of Air New Zealand Cup and not surprisingly has warmed to the freedom of the loose forwards. After starting the season on the reserves bench, Naikatini got a start against Counties-Manukau in round six and hasnt looked back. The same could be said for his fledgling rugby career since he arrived in New Zealand for his final year of school.

Born in Nadi, Naikatini attended Nasinu Secondary School and then Marist Brothers College, the school that produced current Fiji national coach Illi Tabua and former Crusader Marika Vunibaka. Selected in the Fijian Schools side to tour Australia and Tonga, he caught the eye of talent scouts from New Zealand and gained a rugby scholarship at Wanganui City College.

His brother Illiki, a member of the current Manawatu squad, had moved to Wellington to try his luck with Northern United in 2002 and Api followed in 2004. Then-Norths coach Eddie Ellison recalls a reluctant young lock who hadnt realised his potential.

"I called him up into the premier squad pretty early on, but then I would turn up at training and hed be missing. He kept going back to the colts and I kept dragging him back into the premier squad."

Ellison, now Wellington Development team coach, said Naikatinis height and jumping ability had limited his chances to play blindside flanker at club level. "We played him mainly at lock because we didnt really have anyone tall enough and we had a lot of good loose forwards. This year Norths had a couple of bean poles and he got a bit more of a run.

"Apis so quick on the jump - thats one of his real strengths as a lock - but the other parts of his game have really improved. "He used to sort of do those dancing runs with the ball a lot and turn it over with 50-50 passes, but hes really worked on that and (Lions forwards coach) Jamie Joseph has obviously done some good work there."

A New Zealand Colts trialist last year, Naikatini is picked by many to be a bolter in the Hurricanes Super 14 squad at the end of the month.
Adapted from October 20, 2007