Eddie Osei-Nketia for the All Blacks sevens team — that's the inside tip from the top Kiwi sportsman who has become the young sprint sensation's mentor.

And athletics fans need not fret.​

Former Commonwealth Games athlete Gary Henley-Smith, who combined rugby and running in his day, believes the teenage Osei-Nketia will be able to pursue a black jersey and Olympic double dream.​

Henley-Smith — who is coaching and mentoring Osei-Nketia — and his wife Susanne have become so close to the teen that he even calls them dad and mum now and then.​


If anyone knows the life as a footballing athlete it is Henley-Smith who has taken Osei-Nketia under his wing at Wellington's Scots College, the school which also helped hone Steven Adams into an NBA basketball star.​

West Aucklander Henley-Smith first hit the headlines in the 1970s, as a schoolboy sensation out of Auckland Grammar.​

As an athlete, he was a national secondary school sprint champion, and also set longstanding junior records.​

He went on to compete in the 1990 Commonwealth Games, and athletics took him on a scholarship to Washington State University.​

But his career was incredibly varied.​

The flying fullback played rugby under future World Cup winner Sir Graham Henry at Auckland Grammar, and again with the University club.​

And personal connections helped take Henley-Smith to the famous Wigan league club in England, where his brief career included victory over the Kiwis in 1985.​

"I just remember hanging on to Joe Ropati's legs," he says, about the powerful Kiwi wing he marked that day.​


It means Henley-Smith has shared sporting fields with everyone from future All Blacks, to league greats such as Ellery Hanley, and Kenyan running star Henry Rono. As a coach he even guided Mt Maunganui's Dean Wise into a world junior sprint final two decades ago, the only Kiwi to get that far on the world stage.​

But buried in this eclectic sporting life is something which is set to have an impact on New Zealand beyond those glowing memories.​

In the 1990s, Henley-Smith got to know Ghanaian sprinter Gus Nketia in the Auckland athletics scene. ​

The reserved 19-year-old Nketia had defected to New Zealand after the 1990 Commonwealth Games, at the urging of his more outgoing team mate Laud Codjoe.​

It was a dramatic moment, the pair initially going into hiding, and effectively being exiled as they made their athletics mark in their adopted home.​

Eddie Osei-Nketia at the NZ Track and Field Championships. 8 March 2019. Christchurch, New Zealand. www.photosport.nz
Eddie Osei-Nketia at the NZ Track and Field Championships. 8 March 2019. Christchurch, New Zealand. www.photosport.nz

It is this old connection which has led to the 17-year-old Osei-Nketia, son of Gus, shifting from Canberra to Scots College where humanities teacher Henley-Smith is also director of boarding and head of careers. It's a move which has increased the possibility that Osei-Nketia will wear the silver fern rather than green and gold, as an athlete and rugby player.​

It has been something of a mystery as to why a kid who loved his Auckland childhood, and has spent the last eight years in Canberra, ended up in Wellington. Mystery solved​.

"It was really because of my connection with Gus," says Henley-Smith.​

"Eddie came over for the Capital Classic meet which is where I caught up with Gus, when he told me how Eddie loves rugby.​

"At first I wondered if Eddie really wanted to come back but I realised it was Eddie who was driving this.​

"Eddie doesn't really like Australia, and he's had a longing to come back here. He was a bit devastated when the family left New Zealand.​

"Gus knew I would look after him…and I have a lot of connections with rugby and athletics."​

It has been a momentous year already, with 'Fast Eddie' storming to the Australian 100m title, and recording a time which makes him the second fastest under-20 sprinter in the world. His talent and potential has drawn interest from at least 15 American universities offering athletics scholarships. The calls were coming so thick and fast that Gus, who also coaches Eddie, turned off his phone at one point.​

Henley-Smith has been a growing influence along the way. And he reveals that following the recent Sir Graeme Douglas International Challenge in Auckland, Osei-Nketia visited rugby's national sevens centre in Mt Maunganui, although he won't say who he met.​

"I think he will do both sports - at the moment I don't think there will be a problem doing that," says Henley-Smith, who expects Osei-Nketia to don the school's rugby jersey in July, after the Oceania athletics championships in Townsville.​

"We don't really know where Eddie is at as a rugby player, but it is a good thing that he hasn't been broken physically coming through the system. The contact and defence systems have made rugby so hard.​

"If you look at the American model of sevens, they have Carlin Isles (former nationally ranked sprinter) who wasn't a very good rugby player and has become one of the world's best within a couple of years.​

"From where I am sitting, that that would be an avenue Eddie would probably look at.​

"He is a freak, when you think of his speed with that size - he is 98kg and 1.9 metres. He would destroy on the rugby field.​

"And he hasn't even done any weight training yet. That's what is extraordinary. To get to that size and speed normally takes many years."​

There are some hurdles of course beyond the difficult job of proving his rugby ability and deciding which nation to represent in two sports.​

Henley-Smith emphasises that a major reason for the shift to Wellington was educational.

Gus felt his son had "slipped through the system" in Australia, and his academic progress was poor.​

Scots College have pushed him back to Year 12, worried he would not handle the final year studies. The school is organising educational psychologists to test the youngster, and extra tutoring.​

"One of the unique things about private schools is we can help fund this," says Henley-Smith.​

In terms of representing New Zealand rather than Australia, Henley-Smith says there are historical issues, and maybe some current ones.​

Edward Nketia of the ACT celebrates winning the Under 20 Boys 100m during the Australian Track and Field Championships on April 01, 2019. Photo / Getty Images.
Edward Nketia of the ACT celebrates winning the Under 20 Boys 100m during the Australian Track and Field Championships on April 01, 2019. Photo / Getty Images.

"Unfortunately, Gus didn't have a good experience himself with Athletics New Zealand," he says.​

"I think that's part of the problem why they haven't fully committed to New Zealand.​

"I'm not sure what exactly went wrong…things may have been promised which didn't eventuate.​

"Some things are happening at the moment but why hasn't High Performance Sport stepped in a bit quicker? There must be some sort of money for emerging talent around."​

But those Kiwi ties are strong, as Henley-Smith witnessed a few weeks ago when Osei-Nketia went down memory lane in Auckland.​

He visited the family's former home in Stanmore Bay and his old Red Beach Primary School.​

There, he ran with the kids, signed endless autographs, and hugged his teachers, some of whom had a tear in their eye.​

"He's a pretty cool kid - Gus and Eddie's mum have done an awesome job with him," says Henley-Smith.​

"He's quite humble, but also your typical teenage boy. He will say things.​

"But he is an unbelievable competitor. He loves to win. He has that drive and determination.​

"I've got a real affinity with helping kids out - I've been a counsellor so I'm a good listener.​

"And my headmaster sees it as a bit of a project, to help the family as well. Eddie is a project - which is what Scots did with Steven Adams."