Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Chiefs will cope without Nanai-Williams

Bundee Aki is surprised at how he has adapted to Super rugby. Photo / Getty Images
Bundee Aki is surprised at how he has adapted to Super rugby. Photo / Getty Images

The Chiefs will be without the injured Tim Nanai-Williams when they take on the rapidly improving Crusaders' midfield in Saturday's Super rugby semifinal, but second-five Bundee Aki believes his side has the depth to cope.

It has been a challenging season for the Chiefs' midfield. Aki has been one of the positives, along with the way Nanai-Williams has converted to centre, but now that he has been ruled out with a groin problem, for which he will need surgery, much of the onus will fall on 23-year-old Aki, who is playing his first season at this level.

Coaches Dave Rennie and co have selected seven different midfield combinations. The absence of Sonny Bill Williams has been keenly felt, as they knew it would be, but they have managed to find the consistency necessary to finish at the top of the table despite some bad luck.

Former All Black Richard Kahui was ruled out earlier in the season with yet another shoulder injury, leaving the Chiefs with one of the smallest midfields in the competition.

But as the players around him have come and gone, Aki has been a virtual constant at second-five.

Last year he was a member of the Chiefs' wider training squad, a sideline to his main job as a bank teller for Westpac in Mangere. Now the Counties player is earning interest on a growing reputation.

"It's pretty unlucky for him," he said of Nanai-Williams' injury, "but I back the other players to step up and do what he's been doing. All the players that we have can do the same things he does.

"It's a good thing for the team," Aki said of the midfield rotation earlier in the season. "Everyone's on edge and with the injuries that we've had, the coaches have confidence in every player we have."

Now is a good time to have confidence. The Crusaders have not only shown an improvement up front, playmaker Dan Carter has hit a rich vein of form which is allowing the relatively new midfield combination of Tom Taylor and Ryan Crotty to flourish. Both Taylor and Crotty are smart, precise players. They are solid defenders too but perhaps lack the flair that Aki possesses.

Charlie Ngatai is likely to be Aki's midfield partner at Waikato Stadium. He and Aki played in both the Chiefs' matches against the Crusaders this season and Ngatai adds a bit of size to the No13 jersey which has been swapped around a fair bit.

Aki, who scored the Chiefs' first try against the Blues in front of his family and former workmates at Eden Park recently, admitted he had been surprised by his progress.

"I actually have been surprised at how I've adapted in my first season of Super rugby. I'm enjoying it at the moment and hopefully there's a lot to learn and hopefully I'll get better."

Counties coach Tana Umaga, the former All Black midfielder, has been a major influence, but Aki said all of the Chiefs coaches had input into his progress this year.

- APNZ

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