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4 April 2024
super rugby pacific rd 1 chiefs v crusaders
Nanai-Seturo on the way to the tryline for the Chiefs.

Something of a schoolboy star, Etene Nanai-Seturo has gradually developed into a very good professional and brings lightning feet and finishing power to the Chiefs, writes Campbell Burnes.

There’s a touch of ‘The Flash’ about Etene Nanai-Seturo.

Lelia Masaga had a bigger smile, though not a bigger sidestep, but he was full of X-factor and flair, crossing for 32 tries from 91 games for the Chiefs franchise, playing a prominent role in their two Super Rugby titles in 2012-13.

Nanai-Seturo has also brought a cutting edge to the Chiefs’ outside backs since 2019 as he eyes up the 50-game milestone. He would give a lot to emulate Masaga as a Super Rugby champion come June, the Chiefs desperate to go one better after the agony of 2023 when they were the best team in the comp until the final.

In the opening two rounds of Super Rugby Pacific 2024, Nanai-Seturo looked as sharp as the proverbial tack. With 2023 All Black Emoni Narawa still sidelined, Nanai-Seturo has combined sweetly with Shaun Stevenson and Liam Coombes-Fabling to form a potent Chiefs’ back three. He scored two tries and peeled off two 50-22s as the Chiefs edged the Crusaders and dispatched the Brumbies before coming a cropper against the Reds, a game Nanai-Seturo missed with a tight calf.

His form has signalled the clear progress he has made since he committed to 15s after the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, having appeared in 13 tournaments for the All Blacks Sevens.

Selection on the wing for the All Blacks XV last year showed he was on the national radar and not a million miles away from his ultimate goal, despite the plethora of outside backs.

When Rugby News spoke with Nanai-Seturo, he was sitting on 47 games for the Chiefs, so it figures that he will, touch wood, hit the half century this month. Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Bradley Slater have already raised the milestone this season, while Tupou Vaa’i and Ollie Norris are next in line.

“Obviously that will be a big accomplishment for myself and my family. Fiftieth games are always special for the boys and their families. I’m looking forward to it, even though I take things game by game,” says the 24-year-old.

The Chiefs scored 27 tries in the outside backs, five of them to Nanai-Seturo, in 2023. The brilliant Stevenson ran in 12 and Narawa eight. They are a dangerous proposition on the counter-attack and that’s before you have even factored in the roving No 10 Damian McKenzie and the dangers he poses to defensive systems. It’s about playing heads-up rugby and trusting the man next to you.

“It’s good that when the forwards do the job up front, it gives us backs the chance to express ourselves out wide. When we have the likes of Shooter, Coombesy and Emoni at the back, they are all good with ball in hand and can kick as well, it gives us options,” he says.

“On the counter-attack, that’s the best thing for the open winger to get back as fast as he can to give options to the fullback or whoever’s at the back, help them out.”

Nanai-Seturo looks locked into the Chiefs’ No 11 jersey, but he plays at fullback for the Counties Manukau Steelers in the NPC, where he won the Duane Monkley Medal last year for his sharp attacking play, which yielded six tries for a team that just missed the playoffs.

Any preference?

“It’s not like it’s a big change. It’s a pretty easy (transition). I get a lot of ball at 15 for Counties Manukau. I still see a lot of ball at 11 for the Chiefs. So they are similar roles and I enjoy playing both. I’ve been playing 15 since school.”

His hefty left boot does not quite possess the length of Zarn Sullivan’s torpedo, but it is still a useful weapon on the left wing or at the back.

“There’s always room for improvement in all areas. Mine is still trying to develop my left boot. We use it a lot in how we execute our game plan. Shooter uses his right boot,” he says.

Especially helpful to his game has been the coaching of Roger Randle, who looks after the Chiefs’ backline attack and, specifically, the back three. Randle was not a fullback but he was a prolific right wing who ran in 141 tries in 189 first-class games, a superior strike rate than Jeff Wilson, Julian Savea and Jonah Lomu, amongst others.

“All the Chiefs coaches are helpful to me, but he’s the main coach for us outsides. I’ve been with him for 5-6 years and he’s been really good for me. He’s black and white and tells me how it is. He knows the way I play and understands me as a player,” Nanai-Seturo says.

The Chiefs, once proud to be underdogs, are now happier to take the favourites mantle and walk towards that pressure.

“Look, we take it day by day. Every team we face will bring their A game. It’s up to us to turn up with the right attitude and bring energy and fizz.”

Nanai-Seturo first attracted wider notice in sevens, but he won’t be making a late bid to make the Olympics team.

“Sevens is a good game. I miss the boys, but I’m sticking to 15s now and keen to nail my role here,” he says.

His NZR and Chiefs contract ends in 2025, while his Counties Manukau deal runs out at the end of this season’s NPC. What happens after that may depend on how high up the national 15/wing pecking order he lies.

“The All Blacks are always the main goal. It’s about me putting my best foot forward for this club. I owe a lot to them. I believe if I play well for my club then everything will take care of itself.”

Sounds like a wise approach. Back in his days with the 2014-17 St Kentigern First XV, he stood out in a top team that had a lot of media and TV coverage. Coming under the coaching of Tai Lavea, he was man of the match in the 2015 Auckland 1A final. Many of his work habits stemmed from those days.

“We had a good programme going on at St Kent’s. It really prepped me physically, though I still had to put on a bit of weight, a bit of muscle. That really helped me moving forward into professionalism,” says Nanai-Seturo.

While there were moral question marks around St Kent’s approach during that period, there is no doubt that it gave many players a good grounding in training like an athlete, which is why many of them moved into the elite ranks.

Nanai-Seturo himself loved watching league in his youth. Men like Billy Slater and Greg Inglis commanded his attention as much as his cousin Tim Nanai-Williams or Damian McKenzie. The Warriors signed him as a teen, but NZR bought out some of his contract when he deemed that his heart lay in the 15-man code.

The man himself, though yet to crack the All Blacks, says he has no regrets about his shift back to union. The Chiefs are glad for that.

Positions: Wing, fullback
Teams: All Blacks XV, All Blacks Sevens, Chiefs, NZ Under 20s, NZ Schools, Counties Manukau, Karaka, Bombay (Counties Manukau clubs), St Kentigern (First XV)
Chiefs 2019-24: 47 games/18 tries
Counties Manukau 2018-23: 28 games/10 tries
Honours: Duane Monkley Medal winner 2023, 2x Auckland 1A First XV titles (2015 and ’17), Commonwealth Games gold medallist 2018, Olympics silver medallist 2021

*Stats correct to March 22

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