Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Fleet footed Chief to tackle his one deficiency

Worries over defence are stumbling block in slog and trench warfare of test rugby.

Tim Nanai-Williams' speed and agility have made him one of the Super season's stand-out backs. Photo / Getty Images
Tim Nanai-Williams' speed and agility have made him one of the Super season's stand-out backs. Photo / Getty Images

First, the bad news. There are whispers that Tim Nanai-Williams' chances of making the All Blacks this year aren't great because of selectors' concerns about his defence.

If that's true it's a shame because the 23-year-old has been brilliant for the Chiefs this season. His pace, agility and ability to read the game have made him one of the stand-out backs of the competition.

Centre is an unfamiliar position for Nanai-Williams, who moved from the wing, yet he leads the try-scoring tally among the New Zealand teams after 11 rounds with six.

With centre Conrad Smith set to be unavailable for the All Blacks' European tour, Richard Kahui off to Japan (if his shoulder allows it), and Cory Jane out with a knee injury, the national selectors are in the market for another midfielder this year and Nanai-Williams' ability to cover wing and fullback should mark him as a real prospect.

But the slog of test rugby is more akin to trench warfare than the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of its Super counterpart, and that's why sound tackling technique is one of the first qualities looked at by the selectors.

The All Blacks were only slightly off defensively against England at Twickenham in their final test last year and yet they were punished severely, a defeat no doubt still troubling coach Steve Hansen.

The All Blacks selectors have shown they are willing to take a chance on youth - it paid off last year with locks Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick and halfback Aaron Smith - but they also like to fall back on experience.

That is why, despite his ordinary form, Ma'a Nonu will more than likely be playing at second-five against France in June, with Conrad Smith outside him.

Later in the year current All Black Ben Smith, a utility, is a possibility for the midfield, as is in-form Blues centre Rene Ranger, who played three tests for the All Blacks in 2010.

But here is a plug for the little bloke with the double-barrelled name and dancing feet who certainly doesn't lack for courage despite his size - he is 5cm shorter and 8kg lighter than Conrad Smith.

As Chiefs assistant coach Wayne Smith, a former All Blacks selector, said this week, Nanai-Williams constantly plays above his weight, especially at the breakdown. He also has a little of his cousin Sonny Bill Williams' X-factor - valuable when the All Blacks become predictable as they did in their loss to England.

"What people don't see often is his work in the dark places and the contesting of rucks," Smith said after Nanai-Williams impressed in the Chiefs' victory over the Sharks.

But in the next breath, he mentioned what could be Nanai-Williams' Achilles heel: "He did fall off some tackles, which blighted his performance... a measure of him was that he was down in the changing room after a man-of-the-match performance. All he could remember were the tackles he fell off."

Nanai-Williams saved one try with his extreme pace and willingness to chase back but still the overwhelming feeling for him was disappointment.

Here's hoping he can impress Hansen and Co sufficiently to avoid similar feelings later this year.

- NZ Herald

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