As far as apprenticeships for aspiring midfielders go, it doesn’t get much better than having All Blacks star Ma’a Nonu showing you the ropes.
With 66 Test caps, A Rugby World Cup winner’s medal and countless Tri Nations victories under his belt, few second five-eighths in the world come close to matching the experience and class of Nonu.
It’s no coincidence then that his understudy, the bright eyed youngster Francis Saili, is thriving under the tutelage of his childhood hero.
From watching YouTube clips of Nonu tearing up hapless defences just 12 months ago, Saili now incredibly finds himself partnering the dreadlocked warrior in the Blues midfield.
The former New Zealand Under-20 star has enjoyed every moment training and playing alongside Nonu, and said he had tried to soak up every drop of advice he could.
“It’s been awesome,” Saili said. ìI haven’t really asked as many questions as I should have but just watching him and seeing what lines he runs or his passing game because his distribution is good, has been great for my development.
“Whenever I get a chance to sit down and talk to him I just fire questions at him but when it comes to training I just watch and learn how he does it and try to take some of his stuff and put it into my game and mix the two together.”
Saili was initially named in the Blues Wider Training Group, but following a spate of injuries to the likes of Isaia Toeava, Benson Stanley and George Moala, Saili was drafted into the main squad and hasn’t looked back since.
“My goal coming into the Blues for the first time was just to learn from the big boys like Ma’a and the other All Blacks,” Saili said.
“This is who I always wanted to grow up and play for and fulfil my dreams with so when I had the opportunity against the Highlanders I really wanted to take it with two hands.”
And take it with two hands he did. Despite a disappointing loss, Saili announced himself as an exciting prospect with a man-of-the-match performance, and backed it up a week later with a sublime effort against the Chiefs, playing against none other than his other idol, Sonny Bill Williams.
“It was a special moment for me,” Saili confessed about taking on SBW.
“When I first glanced at him I was like ‘Bro it’s Sonny Bill!’ and he was a lot bigger than I thought, it’s the first time I’d seen him up close.
“Just to have him in front of me, I was starstruck initially but after that I just got on with my game and played hard ñ all I wanted to do was go hard because that’s the result you demand from yourself.”
It’s perhaps one of the few silver linings in a catastrophic season for the Blues – the unearthing of some promising talent capable of leading the franchise out of the mire in seasons to come.
Saili, along with young loose forward Steven Luatua, look set to play a leading role in the Blues’ revival in 2013, but remarkably Saili almost lost his opportunity to make a mark before his Blues career had even begun.
After flying to South Africa earlier in the year to cover for injuries, an indiscretion where he broke team protocols saw he and his older brother Peter suspended from the Blues squad.
“Because of what happened in South Africa I didn’t think I would get an opportunity and thought I would be at the bottom of the ladder,” Saili said.
“But fortunately the coach gave me a second chance and I just wanted to take it with two hands and keep working harder and harder and each day trying to improve, to get the best out myself and fulfil the dreams that I’ve set for myself.”
It is that hard work, grit and hunger to succeed that sets apart Saili from his peers.
His enthusiasm is infectious and the smile on his face shows he loves being in the Blues environment. From early morning conditioning sessions, late night boxing classes or extras after training, Saili has a burning desire to become a better player.
“I didn’t know what hard work was until I looked at how other sporting superstars got there and read a few readings about how they did it. Most of them were all talking about how hard work gets you to wherever you want to be and I wanted to try it out.
“Once I knew that hard work got me the initial opportunity and it showed out on the field, I thought if I could work hard and get the result I should keep going and you never know I might just push on for All Blacks hopefully one day.
“That’s later down the track. For now I just want to focus on how I can get there and truck along, take baby steps and not look too far ahead of myself because that’s when I’ll fall short. I just work hard and stay disciplined and professional.”
Saili also feels he owes Blues head coach Pat Lam a debt of gratitude for sticking with him, and wants to repay him by finishing off the season on a high.
“The coach has taken a lot crap from the public and the media and I want to repay him with two wins and with my hard work on the field because he gave me that opportunity against the Highlanders and it spilled on from there so I want to play these last two games for him and hopefully we get the Ws on the board.”
The Blues play their final home game of the season against the Western Force at Eden Park on Saturday night, kick-off 7.35pm.
Tickets are available from www.ticketmaster.co.nz or by calling 0800 111 999