Rugby: Patience rewarded as West signs up

By Anendra Singh

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Ihaia West.
Ihaia West.

You somehow get the feeling Ihaia West will have no qualms about digging deep into his pockets to buy a couple of rugger boys a beer.

"Oh, I'd buy them more than one drink each," says West with a laugh when asked if he owes Blues midfielder Ma'a Nonu and Hurricanes first five-eighth Beauden Barrett a shout.

The Hawke's Bay Magpie pivot this week signed a two-season contract with the Auckland Super Rugby franchise.

With all the media speculation about the Blues chasing All Black No10 Barrett, West had opted to be patient.

"I didn't want to make any decision until Beauden Barrett made his," says the Progressive Meats Havelock North Rugby Football Club utility back as he keeps his fingers crossed Blues coach Sir John Kirwan will give him a starting berth in the final round of the Super Rugby match against the Chiefs at Eden Park, Auckland, tonight.

Getting stuck behind Barrett in the queue, which includes Baden Kerr and Chris Noakes, wasn't on West's agenda.

So why toast a beer with Nonu?

You see, West and Nonu have developed a cohesiveness that the All Black centre has been thriving on of late.

Regrettably there's further conjecture Nonu may be heading back to his old stomping grounds in the Hurricanes patch now that coach Mark Hammett will be stepping down at the end of the season.

Nonu, and other former Canes players such as Piri Weepu, found himself in exile after failing to find traction with Hammett.

West, who slipped through the Super Rugby contractual process at the start of the season despite a stellar ITM Cup rugby stint with the Craig Philpott and Danny Lee-coached Magpies, made his debut for the Blues against the Reds on May 2.

The imaginative player, who came in for an injured Kerr and Noakes, left his calling card after a scorching 50m try that night.

West came off the bench in the Blues' next two games, which they lost to the Chiefs and Sharks, before making the starting XV in the win over the Hurricanes.

More importantly, a relatively inexperienced West kept his composure against Barrett in the 37-24 win at Eden Park.

Should Nonu head back home, it'll be interesting to see who slots into the second five-eighths position because Kirwan's mindset will determine if West will start before Kerr and Noakes.

Consequently, albeit in jest, one must never underestimate what a sip or two of the golden frothy stuff between the West and Nonu can do for the Blues' backline even though it seems keeping the dreadlocked one away from his roots in the capital city is a lost cause.

"It's awesome playing with Ma'a because he's obviously got a lot of experience as an All Black and Super Rugby player," says West, after the Blues blunder this season that saw Kirwan entice Benji Marshall from rugby league but not having enough confidence to inject him in the backline.

"I've played heaps with him and he's been taking a lot of pressure inside of him."

Nonu, he reveals, is always within earshot - offering advice and executing incisive play.

West will be the first to agree the Blues contract has been the biggest relief after spurning overtures from the Rebels at the start of the season to ply his trade in Australia.

"It has been a rollercoaster ride so I'm pretty stoked to be where I am for the next two years. It's really exciting."

The serene demeanour that he exudes on the field is equally laudable off it.

Having taken stock of his youth, West had decided to stay and "have a crack" in New Zealand.

"I worked out a couple of injuries and managed it to get up here."

Besides, had he given in to the Rebels, West would have had to kiss goodbye to his aspirations of slipping on a Maori All Blacks jersey.

"At the end of the day I'm still young enough so I'm glad I stayed."

No doubt, today's 7.35pm kick off will be a litmus test for West as the Blues keep alive their slimmest hopes of making the cut for the playoffs from the following weekend.

Should West start, he'll be pitted against Chief's counterpart, Aaron Cruden.

"Cruden's obviously someone I've looked up to. He's also a small bloke like me so to come against him will be a good test for myself."

He is mindful the All Black made a dozen tackles in the 24-16 win over the Canes last weekend while he made four and missed three of them in the Blues' 21-13 loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch.

"Defence is big part of my game so I'm trying to improve on that," says the man who trained with the Chiefs early this year.

Unlike Cruden, West chose to pass the ball rather than try to push over the advantage line.

Just as the prudent will note, he will shrug of flaws in the same fashion as he shaved off his red goatee this week.

"I've got to try to pick my options of when to run, pass or kick so I'll hopefully have the chance to get my running game going and take the ball to him to change it into an attacking style of play."

West laughs when it is pointed out that Kirwan marvels at his calmness under pressure.

"Sometimes when the team is going good, it's great but last week it was a tough game with pressure so Ma'a was always in my ear."

His parents, Shona and Simon West, have been consigned to babysitting duties this weekend as West's sister, Aorangi and her partner, Isaac Paewai, are travelling up to see him play.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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