Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Shades of Lomu in slick Li

Tevita Li's power is natural, not honed in the gym, and he handles the physical part of the sport. Photo / NZ Herald
Tevita Li's power is natural, not honed in the gym, and he handles the physical part of the sport. Photo / NZ Herald

Close your eyes and imagine a little. Take yourself back to the 1995 Rugby World Cup when a young Tongan thundered down the left wing for the All Blacks.

Jonah Lomu's deeds and one run in particular against England, left experienced commentator Keith Quinn scrambling for an appropriate description.

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A couple of years ago, Quinn was equally impressed, though not as speechless in commentary, about the work of another young Tongan wing, Tevita Li, creating mayhem for his Massey High School against Westlake Boys.

From halfway Li used his fend, speed and power to leave three defenders eating grass as he raced 60m to the line.

Then 16, Li was gold dust for his school and word started to travel well beyond his West Auckland patch about this rugby prodigy.

View a gallery of images from the Blues v Crusaders:

The stakes rose when the Chiefs came sniffing and after watching Li in just one match for his Massey club, Wayne Smith offered the young wing a full-time contract with the Super 15 champions.

It was tempting but Li decided to wait. That was just as well for the Blues and when coach Sir John Kirwan got a chance to evaluate the teenager he gave him opportunities to train and get to know their systems.

He brought him into the side to play France at North Harbour Stadium and not long after, Li accepted a role with the Blues' wider training group. He was an Auckland boy who wanted to stay in the area and push himself to perform on the professional rugby circuit.

Li is no one-trick sports jock. He is an accomplished trombone and trumpet player, loves Shakespeare and went through to Year 13 and then worked part-time at a Henderson factory last year as he juggled his sporting interests.

"He's a good boy, he has a keen sense of humour, he fitted in really well here as we have half the Massey rugby guys here too," factory manager Peter Hogg said.

"I've not seen a kid who's been any better at senior rugby. He is outstanding and with the Blues he has got a lot fitter and better. He is a very respectful guy always looking to improve himself and his game."

Li has not forgotten the boost he got from his Massey club and even though his days are chock full of work and training with the Blues, he still turns up at club training. It's an extension of the messages Li gave his contemporaries at school.

"My advice to Pacific youth is whatever you do, put the word 'hard' with it," he said. "Play hard, train hard and work hard because hard work pays off."

Former First XV coach Jarrod Framhein watched Li put those ideas into practice as he pushed through his secondary school years. "When I first saw him he played centre and he was just such a threat with the ball," Framhein said.

"I remember he turned up for a First XV trial, I think he was just in his second year, the cheeky bugger, and I shooed him away. He was academically smart and had been put forward a year and his parents were very supportive and put an emphasis on all-round achievement.

"He was very good at rugby, though he could be a bit rocks and diamonds - he did not always have the consistency. But it was his ability, the speed, balance, ball-handling and kicks - he goal kicks from halfway - and his work ethic.

"He trains very hard and takes anything seriously. He plays very hard and does not goof off."

Eighteen-year-old Li, 1.82m and at 95kg, has trimmed down a touch since he got into the Blues regime. His power is natural, not honed in the gym, and he handles the physical part of the sport.

His coaches have worked hard to get him to attack space and use the speed he has as a school sprint champion. That explosiveness was self-evident against the Crusaders when he ran on to Patrick Tuipulotu's pass, crushed Colin Slade and evaded Richie McCaw in a scintillating 50m surge to the line.

It was a great beginning. Now we will settle in to see what plays out in the rest of the campaign.

- NZ Herald

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