Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: McNicholl pushes way into spotlight

The fend, the pace, the ability to find the try-line - young Crusaders wing Johnny McNicholl's rugby education appears to have been a good one and now he is about to come up against two of his teachers.

Matt Sexton and Brad Mooar, two of McNicholl's influences as a player in Christchurch recently, are now coaching the Southern Kings, the new Super Rugby team from Port Elizabeth.

With the Kings taking on the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday, both Sexton, McNicholl's former academy coach, and Mooar, the player's former coach and one-time agent, will have an excellent vantage point from which to view their former pupil.

McNicholl, in his first season with the Crusaders after shining in the ITM Cup with Canterbury last season, has impressed with his power and speed.

He has an uncanny ability to beat the first tackle, usually with a powerful hand-off or quick change of direction. But the 22-year-old, who turned down an offer from Sir John Kirwan to move to the Blues, has not had a traditional rugby education, his latter years under Sexton and Mooar apart.

Instead of attending rugby powerhouses Christchurch Boys' or St Bede's, McNicholl went to Cashmere High, the alama mater of cricketer Stephen Fleming, and he said his development was helped by a couple of keen teachers there.

"I had the right people backing me. I had a few teachers there who were keen on rugby and who backed my case and helped me get noticed as well,'' McNicholl said.

Instead of playing first XV rugby, McNicholl played for the Sydenham Rugby Club's colts team before making his way into the Canterbury rugby academy system where he encountered Sexton and Mooar.

Always a slippery customer on attack, now his fend looks like something out of Cory Jane's back catalogue but it's purely instinctive and not modelled on the injured Hurricane's, he said.

The same goes with his ability to beat the first would-be tackler.

"I see it as a strength,'' he said. "I don't know how I do it, it's just instinctive when I get the ball. I put a bit of footwork on or a fend and just hope I get through and it's always happened for me. It's just instinct, I don't train it.''

McNicholl said his goals for the season were to keep his starting spot and maintain his high work rate, the latter crucial in a game plan as high-tempo as the Crusaders'.

Asked if it was a tiring way to play, he said: "It's tiring for us, but I think we're making the opposition expend more energy.''

He pointed to the way the Bulls struggled to keep pace in their 41-19 thrashing last week. ``Our game plan was overworking them which was a good sign for us _ we know it works.''

A good match-up could be McNicholl up against 18-year-old Kings speedster Sergeal Petersen, who has recorded a 100m time of 10.55 seconds and represented South Africa at the youth world championships.

"I saw him last week and I thought he was bloody quick. I wouldn't want to give him much room.''

Petersen will probably be thinking the same of McNicholl.

Crusaders team to play the Kings at AMI Stadium on Saturday, kick-off 7.35pm is: Israel Dagg, Tom Marshall, Robbie Fruean, Ryan Crotty, Johnny McNicholl, Dan Carter, Willi Heinz, Kieran Read (c), Matt Todd, George Whitelock, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Joe Moody, Dominic Bird, Luke Whitelock, Andy Ellis, Tyler Bleyendaal, Zac Guildford.


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