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Nankivell asks questions of NZ selectors as Chiefs backs come alive in Melbourne

By Tom Vinicombe
Alex Nankivell. (Photo by William WEST / AFP)

While the entire backline from the Chiefs’ 51-27 win over the Waratahs on Friday night would have emerged from the victory with their reputations enhanced, there were two men that stole the show.

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Midfielder Alex Nankivell has been one of the Chiefs’ best performers this year and many are suggesting the 25-year-old is knocking on the door of national selection. He was at his damaging best in the No 13 jersey against the Waratahs, jinking and jiving through defenders at will and always managing to keep the ball alive when hit by an opposition defender.

Similarly, wing Jonah Lowe was a hard man to bring down and managed to get his name on the scoreboard four times – just one fewer than the record-setting feat achieved by Sean Wainui in last year’s fixture between the Chiefs and Waratahs in Sydney.

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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific.
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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific.

It certainly helped that the Chiefs had a one-man advantage in the backline early in the piece (and an additional one-man advantage in the forwards) after former Wales international Jamie Roberts was sin-binned for slapping the ball out of the air when the Chiefs were threatening out wide. During the period that Roberts was off the park, the Chiefs scored two tries – through Lowe and fellow winger Quinn Tupaea.

“One short of a pretty proud Chiefs man who scored five last year,” McMillan said of Lowe’s feats, referencing Wainui’s efforts in 2021. “So yeah, not quite at that level yet.

 

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“He had a good day at the office. He was on the end of a pretty handy sort of operation today – helped by the fact they lost some key men too. Down to 13 or 14 men, that’s always tough, and the wingers are generally the beneficiaries of that. We’ve been on the other side of it so we know.”

Lowe has been in and out of the match-day squad this year due to injuries and illness and Friday night’s match was just his fifth appearance and fourth start of the season.

Nankivell, on the other hand, has featured in all nine of the Chiefs’ games to date.

McMillan said that the Nankivell, who’s been asked to fill in on the wings as well as starting games in both the No 12 and No 13 jerseys, is in career-best form.

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“He’s certainly been playing well,” McMillan noted after the match. “He’s probably our most consistent performer.

“I’d probably put it down to the fact that he’s actually playing consistent rugby. Over the last couple of years he’s had to fight for a position with Anton Lienert-Brown, Quinn, Sean Wainui. So there’s been some competition there. Through one way or another, Anton getting injured, us sort of rotating our All Blacks back in early doors, it gave Alex the opportunity to string some consecutive games together and that’s been really beneficial for him.

“He’s always been an outstanding Chief and a solid performer. Like I said, he just hasn’t had the opportunity to string the consistent games together because of the cattle he’s been having to compete against but he’s doing a great job at the moment.”

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Chiefs captain Sam Cane added that a slew of mishaps early in Nankivell’s Super Rugby career meant the midfield had to overcome a few hurdles before finding his feet but that he’s developed into a top performer for the side.

“He’s been with us since he was about 20 years old, I think. Particularly in his early stages he had some horrifically bad luck with all sorts of bizarre things, from appendix [issues] to getting sent home from South Africa because of his visa.

“He had a real rough time for a long period so it’s awesome to see him have a really good run and show everyone what he’s capable of.”

Next week the Chiefs are set to take on the Reds in Brisbane, with Nankivell likely lining up against Wallabies midfielder Hunter Paisami and Lowe potentially marking flyer Filipo Daugunu.

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