Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Milner-Skudder knows rivals will be searching for his secrets

New Zealand All Blacks winger Nehe Milner-Skudder. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand All Blacks winger Nehe Milner-Skudder. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

Nehe Milner-Skudder proved last year that Forrest Gump's mother was right, life really is like a box of chocolates and you never quite know what you are going to get.

If anyone says they knew all along that Milner-Skudder was going to be the find of 2015 and the unknown element to jazz up the All Blacks' attacking game, they are lying.

Even the All Black coaches weren't presupposing too much. He'd caught their eye during the 2014 ITM Cup, but there's a long road to endure between provincial rugby and the test arena.

It was a wait-and-see business with Milner-Skudder, who just kept delivering as the pressure and stakes got higher. The tougher the questions, the better his answers and by the World Cup knockout rounds, Milner-Skudder had defences everywhere rattled.

No one knew how to deal with him - this undersized creature who seemingly appeared from nowhere and was similarly ethereal on the field.

Few players in the professional game have enjoyed a debut season quite like his. Few, if any, have charged so quickly from obscurity to worldwide fame and no one has done so on the back of such a quaintly old-fashioned skill-set of electric footwork and a sidestep that makes him more elusive than Lord Lucan.

Milner-Skudder is the proverbial ice cube in a world of icebergs and it's the ingenuity of his game that made him such a natural fit with the All Blacks. That and his composure, work ethic and hunger to learn.

Those last two qualities are going to be critical in 2016, as Milner-Skudder no longer has the element of surprise. He's very much a known quantity now and rugby, as critics are quick to note, is a sport of spreadsheets, video clip analysis and number crunching, which means his secrets are no longer safe. No one can remain an enigma for long and it's that truth that sits prominently in Milner-Skudder's thinking on the eve of Super Rugby kicking off.

An inevitable consequence of this analytical age is that trends are noted and named and the worry for Milner-Skudder is that he contracts second-season syndrome.

"I think I would be pretty stupid if I thought I could slip under the radar the way I did last year, with it being my first year," he says. "I know that teams and players will have done their analysis and worked out how I play now, so I have a challenge to get better and improve my game."

That plain truth of what lies ahead has been apparent to Milner-Skudder for months now. Barely a week after the All Blacks had won the World Cup, he was already anxious to get himself ready for 2016.

"I found the first week after the World Cup a bit weird not being in the gym or out doing some form of exercise," he says. "I kept chipping away at it [his fitness] over summer and the trainer from the Hurricanes gave me a programme to make sure I was up to speed and not far behind.

"I freshened up mentally. There was a lot of rest and recovery. I didn't get many injuries last year luckily so [the break] was more about getting away from rugby; getting away from the day-in demands of being in the All Black set-up.

"That was pretty high-pressure and to be at the World Cup as well, it was good to get that time away and I hope I can hit the ground running again this year."

When he says he hopes to hit the ground running, he makes it sound like he's got his fingers crossed and is trusting in some hidden force to steer him to another miraculous season.

That's not really how it is, though. Behind the easy smile and near-bewilderment that he has landed where he has, lies a fierce, driven and highly disciplined character.

Luck has nothing to do with Milner-Skudder's success. Hard work, application and a genuine humbleness have propelled him this far and are likely to be the traits that allow him to be every bit as good in 2016 as he was in 2015.

It's his desire to contribute and be a good team man that will see him try, in any way he can, to fill the leadership void at the Hurricanes left by Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith.

"Getting back into day one of pre-season ... she was a pretty tough day," he says of returning to work for real after the euphoria of the World Cup. "It was a good reminder that this year is going to be different to last. It was a bit weird [that Nonu and Smith were not there].

"Not just what they did on the field but the leadership they brought off it. You can't replace that type of experience. They were the two most capped Hurricanes and they will be missed but we have got a few exciting young boys coming into the midfield and hoping to form a combination and state their claim.

"I guess being in the All Blacks last year helped with my own game and I was working hard just to get better every day. That was off the field as well and I guess being around senior players like that, you see the way they conduct themselves and it's kind of helping me help the new boys coming through this year. I'd like to say I have a little bit to offer but they will no doubt have plenty of tips for me as well, so it will be kind of working both ways."

One man who will definitely have plenty of advice for Milner-Skudder is Cory Jane. If injury hadn't intervened, there was a fair chance it would have been Jane and not Milner-Skudder wearing the All Black No14 jersey in the World Cup final.

The younger man knows that and he's also aware that Jane hasn't shelved his test ambitions.

"When you see him out and about in public or with the media, he likes a bit of a laugh and a joke," says Milner-Skudder. "But when he is in training and it is time to flick the switch, it is hard to find any other person who is as determined as he is, who is as focused as he is.

"It is awesome to be able to learn from him and look back at what he's done in the black jersey and to think of what he's capable of still doing. He's had an awesome pre-season and he's in bloody good nick. To be able to play alongside him and Jules [Savea] is incredible for me."

The last part of the picture is that Super Rugby bosses are every bit as determined to see Milner-Skudder perform at his peak this season as the man himself is. This tournament needs to be set alight: the rugby needs to make a statement and hold an audience that is uncertain about the format and new entrants.

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