Alex Nankivell has had a stellar career so far, with the Tasman Mako, the Chiefs, Māori All Blacks and All Blacks XV teams featuring prominently on his rugby CV.
But the 26-year-old will soon face arguably his greatest challenge when he joins Irish province Munster following the Super Rugby Pacific campaign. Munster has parted company with first-choice midfielders Chris Farrell and Malakai Fekitoa, who will not be wearing the famous red jersey next season.
Irish international Farrell was let go pending a legal case against him in France, while former All Black Fekitoa has been released from his contract after failing to impress in his first year with the club.
Nankivell says the players leaving, particularly Fekitoa, give him a little more motivation to do well.
“Malakai is a prestigious rugby player, having played for the All Blacks and having had an awesome career so far. While there will be pressure to fill his shoes, I probably have higher expectations on myself. I want to contribute in a big way to the team. I am not going over there just to take a pay cheque. I want to go there and compete. The pressure is more about that and on myself, rather than whose shoes I am filling.
“Not only are you testing yourself in a new competition but it is a different style of rugby. Being a student of the game, I want to challenge myself in a different environment and learn about how different teams operate. I can’t actually wait to get over there after this season and experience all that.”
Nankivell had to decide whether to sign for Munster after he was selected in last year’s All Blacks XV touring party. There is no doubt that made his decision even more difficult. He was closer to his boyhood dream of making the All Blacks but Nankivell was also realistic about his chances.
“There were two things to think about. Obviously, I wanted to be an All Black but there was also that underlying thing that I had wanted to go overseas ever since I was about 18 and found out how many opportunities there were,” says Nankivell.
“Throughout last year, you got a feel for where you sat with the All Blacks selectors. When you see who is in front of you and potentially having to stay another year to pursue that dream, I didn’t think it added up for me so ultimately that is why I chose to sign overseas.”
Nankivell has proven his versatility in his favoured centre position, at second five and on the wing for the Chiefs in recent seasons. Rather than being a hindrance, he sees his flexibility as being helpful to his career so far.
“I don’t want to be that guy who fills just one spot. I want to be a 13 who can play 12, or a 12 who can play 13, or play on the wing. I think it is beneficial, particularly when you go overseas. You go to a new team with new combinations and it might be that you have to play 12 or 13 instead.”
He may have closed the door on his All Blacks aspirations but Nankivell never wanted his career to be defined by that. Chasing individual glory is not what he is about. What matters to him is how he is seen by his teammates, coaches and all the people he has worked with on his rugby journey.
“For me it is never going to be the accolades of what teams I made, or how many tries I scored, or if I won player of the season awards. It is always going to be the memories I made with the people. I am a competitive guy, so for them to see me as the guy at training who always gave his best and competed every day matters, but also that off the field I was a good person and a good teammate.
“Those things are what I want to be defined by, rather than the rugby itself. I have realised in the last few years if you want to be defined only by the rugby then you are not going to be happy as a person outside of that. I want to be judged on who I am as a person, not a rugby player.”
Nankivell has been picking the brains of his new Chiefs’ teammate John Ryan since he arrived from Ireland. The burly tighthead prop is a favourite at Munster and has been copping questions from Nankivell since he stepped off the plane.
“I must have thrown 100 questions at him and I still have more to ask him. Things keep popping up every day which is probably pretty annoying for him. He has told me a bit about the team, and the culture and the differences, which is all really exciting for me. He is a top lad and has fitted in really well. He says he will help me as much as he can with the move. The Chiefs have done a great job for him and his family out here and he wants to do the same for me.”But that is all in the months ahead. Right now, Nankivell’s priority is helping the Chiefs win the Super Rugby Pacific title after they fell at the semifinal stage last year.
“We do have something to prove but as a group we have the confidence that we have the tools to win the Super Rugby competition. We just have to control what we can control, and prepare and train as well as we can, and I guess the games will take care of themselves.“I think the last few years we have been building really well. We have Damo (McKenzie) back and the combinations and experience within the group has just gone up another level, even for how young our squad is.
“We have a really balanced group with lots of depth this year. I think the timing is just perfect really.”
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