Justin Marshall 's Opinion

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall: Big Fijian gives Crusaders their x-factor

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Nemani Nadolo of the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images
Nemani Nadolo of the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images

In today's column I want to have an in-depth look at Nemani Nadolo and the way the Crusaders have improved him out of sight and vice versa.

But first, an anecdote. I first came across Nadolo while playing at a 10s tournament in Hong Kong. At that stage he'd been tried and discarded at the Waratahs and had bounced around a couple of clubs in Europe before landing in Japan.

Straight away I could tell he had all the qualities you needed in a big wing, but it was equally clear he needed a bit of guidance and some fitness work.

Around this time I was playing a bit of squash with Robbie Deans, who was coaching the Wallabies. I told Robbie he needed to get his hands on Fiji-born Nadolo, who grew up in Australia and played for their juniors.

For whatever reason - perhaps he had already committed to Fiji - Robbie didn't follow it up and, to be honest, it's not often he misses an opportunity like that.

So Nemani pitched up at the Crusaders and didn't get a lot of game time at first. Todd Blackadder would have recognised that he needed to work on his base fitness and to get his head around the way the Crusaders play and the way Super Rugby is played.

He gradually made more appearances off the bench and is now an absolutely pivotal part of the Crusaders' weaponry ahead of their final against the Waratahs in Sydney tomorrow night.

The Crusaders were struggling earlier in the year, dropping games at home and finding themselves at the bottom of the New Zealand Conference at one point. They were not scoring tries.

A big reason was they hadn't adequately replaced Robbie Fruean. He was their x-factor player; a guy so big and strong he held defenders and gave players like Israel Dagg room to move. Without Fruean attracting defenders, Dagg found himself a marked man and his form suffered.

The position may be different, but Nadolo has taken up that Fruean role.

He's big, strong and quick. It's not the fact he's scoring tries, but the attention he gets that creates space for others.

He's similar to Israel Folau in that he only needs to poke his nose into the backline and the opposition is immediately on high alert.

When he runs straight off the halfback from scrum or lineout, he invariably slips the first tackler and then attracts two more defenders to tie him down. That's three defenders out of the line for the next phase. That's invaluable. The defence constantly feels like it's chasing its tail from that point on. In this respect, Nadolo is similar to guys like Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga and Joeli Vidiri - all players that you had to double-team in the tackle.

Then, when the halfback chooses to miss him on future occasions, he's still held those inside defenders.

It's a theme I have repeated on several occasions, but in modern rugby it is so important to tie up those inside defenders; it's the difference between your backs having room to breathe or being shut down. You can see that in the way Dagg has come back into form since Nadolo's emergence. No player has benefited more than him.

Of course it's not just a matter of Nadolo being there: Blackadder has had to work him into the game plan and the player himself has had to be proactive. When you have a wing with Nadolo's capabilities, the temptation is to leave him out wide and try to work one-on-ones with the opposite wing. That might work from time to time, but bringing him into the play more from set-piece has been far more beneficial to the Crusaders.

Nadolo, with the help of the Crusaders, now understands what Super Rugby is all about. He's turned into one of the competition's most effective players.

Australia missed a big trick.

- NZ Herald

Justin Marshall

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall played 81 test matches for the All Blacks, including four as captain. The halfback made his debut in 1995 against France and ended his career 10 years later with a series sweep over the British and Irish Lions. He won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, playing 105 games for the franchise. He commentates for Sky Television.

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