Rugby: Michael Little living up to his name for Harbour

By Campbell Burnes

Michael Little of North Harbour offloads in the tackle of Cardiff Vaega. Photo / photosport.nz
Michael Little of North Harbour offloads in the tackle of Cardiff Vaega. Photo / photosport.nz

North Harbour have a bit of X-factor in their midfield.

That is provided by an improving combination of Michael Little at second five with Matt Vaega outside him. The pair started together in five games last season and all five games in the 2016 Mitre 10 Cup. Neither are especially big men, but they can break the line and hit hard in defence.

For the 23-year-old Little, son of former All Blacks No 12 Walter Little, it continues the upward curve of his recent rugby. His six tries for the union in 2015 won him a Blues contract, and he has added three more tries in 2016 with Harbour.

Little junior has inherited the priceless ability of being able to wriggle out of tackles. He has pace and is uncompromising on the tackle. Passing under pressure is a work-on.

As yet, Little is unsigned by the Blues for 2017, so the next few weeks are important in turning heads and securing a fulltime gig, even if not at his home franchise.

He saw no Super Rugby game time, but played for the Blues in pre-season and in June. His diet was club rugby for Glenfield - for whom he scored five tries in one outing - and the Blues Development XV, where he came under the wing of his Harbour coach Steve Jackson. It was a steep learning curve training as a fulltime pro.

"He's been in outstanding form. Pound for pound, to have the ability to beat a man and break through tackles with his leg drive... he's very sound defensively and nine times out of 10 he wins the physical battle. We look to him and Matt Vaega as a formidable midfield combination," Jackson says.

Little admits to having a "shaky" match against Otago last Saturday, though he did make the bust that set up Vaega for a sweet try.

"Matt and I work well together. He's probably one of my best mates in the team and it shows on the field," says Little.

His new backs coach is Daniel Halangahu, the man who wore the No 10 jersey for Harbour for periods of last season.

"What he brings is enormous and I guess over the last couple of years he's been quite a mentor for me. To have him as a coach is bit strange, because we're borderline good mates."

This North Harbour team has been up and down like a yoyo in 2016, but they look tight-knit, and always bring commitment. If they could just reduce their error rate, they could turn some of those close losses, such as against Otago, Wellington and Waikato, into wins.

"I guess it's been steady progress. Last week I tried to over-complicate things. We have to get back to how we were in pre-season," Little says.

He can pass off either hand, but is prone to firing the odd stray ball.

"It's just having the confidence in my distribution. I can catch and pass well on both sides. It's just I tend to eat up my own time on the field."

But he has plenty of support, be it from Halangahu or his father, who brings honesty with his talks or texts.

There are similarities in style between father and son, as there is between Eroni and Caleb Clarke and Ofisa and Salyn Tonu'u.

"I've heard it. I'd like to think I'm a bit quicker than my old man. I've grown up watching him so I guess there are similarities," says Little.

He in turn provides support for his younger cousin James Little, also a midfielder and in the Harbour squad.

The team is under no allusions as to the importance of tomorrow's Championship clash with Southland in Albany.

"It's about making our home a home. If you want to come and win here, you are going to come up against a fight," declares Little.

*Live commentary of the North Harbour-Southland match is on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 2.35pm on Sunday.

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