Daniel Richardson

Daniel Richardson is a Wellington-based sports journalist for NZME. News Service.

Rugby: Ngatai's eyes on ITM title after disappointing Super season

Injuries, lack of opportunity in the past as schoolboy prodigy runs into form.

Charlie Ngatai is just happy to be playing a full season. Photo / NZPA
Charlie Ngatai is just happy to be playing a full season. Photo / NZPA

It's easy to forget that Charlie Ngatai is still only 22.

The Wellington and soon-to-be Chiefs utility moved to the capital as an 18-year-old in 2009 amid plenty of chatter about being the next superstar.

After playing for Poverty Bay in the Heartland Championship in his final year at Gisborne Boys' High School, bigger things seemed a formality, but injury and a lack of opportunity have slowed his development.

He missed most of 2011 through injury, while varying ailments and an overachieving Hurricanes backline kept him out of action for most of this year's Super Rugby season.

The 2012 ITM Cup has been a different story, though, and the polite, albeit shy, Ngatai has made 10 consecutive starts for the Lions.

After playing six games in the No 12 jersey he has played at fullback for the past four, and although you could also easily see him playing centre or even on the wing at a stretch, Ngatai said he was just pleased to get on the paddock.

"Either 12 or 15, as long as I'm on the pitch, really. I'm pretty happy with that," he said of his preferred position.

"It's been really good this season. The past few years I've come down with an injury or something which has kept me out for most of the season, but it's been good this year - I'm playing a full season."

A natural athlete, who is listed between 1.80m and 1.88m on varying internet biographies, Ngatai tips the scales around 100kg, which helps him carry the ball strongly in the midfield, while his natural pace suits fullback.

He will again fill the custodian's role tomorrow night when the Lions host Auckland in their ITM Cup Premiership semifinal at Westpac Stadium.

"We haven't won the championship for a few years now, so that's our main goal," he said.

In fact, Wellington haven't been national champions at provincial level since the Lions hoisted the trophy in 2000, although they were losing finalists from 2006-2009 when the competition was revamped from the old NPC.

As for where Ngatai might play for the defending-champion Chiefs next year, he said he was yet to discuss specifics with head coach Dave Rennie, who also picked him to play for the New Zealand under-20 side in 2010.

Ngatai has time on his side to fulfil his obvious potential and the Chiefs could be the ideal spot to do that, given the departure of second-five Sonny Bill Williams, while Robbie Robinson ran hot and cold at fullback this year.

Ngatai will join the Chiefs in November for pre-season training and he has signed on for two years, while he will pull on the Wellington jersey again in next season's ITM Cup.

The former New Zealand schools representative said in reflecting on his transfer to Wellington that he did find the expectations tough, given the reputation he carried.

The urban legend also goes that there were even inquiries from Poverty Bay about Ngatai's availability for the provincial side from when he was only a Year 11 - the old fifth form - pupil at Gisborne Boys' High School.

"I sort of didn't really focus there," Ngatai said of the move.

"If I'd taken my opportunities when I got the chance I would've done well."

What is certainly true is the talented tyro was also a handy cricketer at junior representative level where he played as an allrounder, although he said his days in the whites were well behind him.

"The old back's blown out so I don't really do much now. The old back gives way after a net session ... But it's pretty sweet for rugby."

- APNZ

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