Nehe Milner-Skudder has been the All Blacks’ find of 2015, writes MARC HINTON.
Test rugby is a sink-or-swim environment. Some find the pace, physicality and unforgiving nature of international footy simply too much to handle and disappear without a trace. Others don’t just survive, they thrive in the heat of the gladiatorial arena. The All Blacks’ breath of fresh air for 2015, Nehe Milner-Skudder, most definitely falls into the latter category.
The 24-year-old had to bide his time before getting the chance to make his mark in the All Blacks’ World Cup lead-up. He was among seven back-three contenders after an eye-catching debut season for the Hurricanes and an untimely rib injury meant he was one of the last to press his claims.
But in just 131 minutes of Test rugby – 80 in a dazzling debut in Sydney, and then 51 in a quality Bledisloe follow-up in Auckland – the man with the double-barrelled surname and the turbo-charged game left such an imprint that he was suddenly being tagged a World Cup must-have. Kiwi rugby fans simply could not get enough of this young man, who has been dubbed the second coming of Christian Cullen.
No wonder. He looks born for the level; dazzling footwork, handy speed, sumptuous skills and superb instinct for an opening, make him an ideal right wing (he’s equally comfortable at fullback) in a Test environment that sometimes serves up only the hint of an opportunity. He’s a quick learner, too, which has already impressed his national coaches. He scored two tries on debut in a rare defeat to the Wallabies in Sydney, winning plaudits not just for his finishing ability, but creativity too. Importantly, he backed that up in the Eden Park bounce-back before limping off with a minor ankle injury in the second half with the job well and truly done.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had been asked before the second Bledisloe Test what he had wanted to see from his rookie wing at a time when so many of his men were on trial.
‘He played really well [in Sydney], and got the Players’ Player of the Day award, so he deserves another go. Let’s see if he can do it again. That’s when it gets exciting – when you can see somebody do something more than once you know you’ve got the real deal.’
And after Auckland, the boss’s verdict: ‘He went well, didn’t he? He played well [in Sydney] but the difference this week was he felt comfortable. That first Test can be quite scary, but the second time out there – after you’ve done things quite well the first time – there are less nerves, you’re a little more comfortable and there are more things you can do. He created a couple of lovely opportunities for us.’
The real deal then. But it’s been far from a traditional Kiwi rugby success story for a guy who for a while belied his famous name, which is an amalgamation of his two All Blacks uncles, Buff Milner (1970) and George Skudder (1969-1973).
For the young Milner-Skudder – born in Taihape but raised in Palmerston North – it wasn’t so much rugby players who inspired him, but those fellows in the rival code of rugby league. His mother, Heneriata Milner, remembers him watching videos of games featuring Australian greats Wally Lewis and Mal Meninga and, eventually, Kiwi icon Benji Marshall.
‘He’d keep pausing the tape to go outside and practise the moves he liked. He and his brother [Eruera] would be out there on a four-by-four metre piece of grass trying to step each other.’
As a young man Milner-Skudder dabbled in many sports – rugby union, rugby league, basketball, cricket and tennis – but it was in the high-skill, high-speed sport of touch that he really excelled (he made the national senior team while just 18).
‘Nehe was an intelligent boy and was always one step ahead of the other players in terms of decision-making,’ school touch coach Josh Stewart told The Dominion Post recently. ‘He had a big step and the footwork to turn anyone inside out. He could also throw the width of the field. I had no doubt he was going to do big things.’
Initially it looked like those ‘big things’ would be in league, with Milner-Skudder’s early passion for the code leading to an opportunity in Sydney with the Canterbury Bulldogs in their U20 system. He spent two years there before returning to Wellington in 2011 and eventually linking with the Manawatu Turbos back in the 15-man code, where he was soon making a huge impact with his mercurial skills.
That led to a wider training squad spot with the Hurricanes in 2014 and a full position this year, where he made such an impression during the Wellington-based franchise’s charge to the Super Rugby final that an All Blacks call-up became a formality.
Now he looks like it’ll take some budging from that No 14 jersey for the World Cup.
‘He played really well for the Hurricanes and during the year you could see him having the opportunity to play for the All Blacks,’ observed Canes and national teammate Ma’a Nonu. ‘He’s taken that chance brilliantly and played very, very well.’
The true tests will come when the stakes rise exponentially at the World Cup, but so far the man with All Black in his blood has looked born for that black jersey.
THE CULLEN COMPARISONS
Nehe Milner-Skudder always admired the talents of great All Blacks fullback Christian Cullen, and it would seem those sentiments are being reciprocated.
As a youngster the All Blacks rookie used to play with a Cullen teddy bear and now they say his rugby game resembles the man who redefined the fullback game during his seven years in Test rugby (1996-2002).
Milner-Skudder may not possess the extraordinary speed that was a hallmark of Cullen’s play when he burst on to the international scene in 1996, but his elusiveness, instinctive brilliance and deceptive strength are all Cullen traits.
It doesn’t harm comparisons that they both hail from the same part of the country, and possess a certain homespun charm.
Cullen, for his part, has been hugely impressed.
‘He’s had two chances and took them both. I like the way he plays and what he brings. He has shown he can handle the pressure too. He brings skills that are a little bit different and he’s exciting, which is important at a World Cup.
‘If he gets into space he can do anything. He doesn’t slow down when he steps, and when he’s got the ball, you just don’t know what he’s going to do.’
In fact Cullen’s such a fan, he says he’ll be first in line when they make the Milner-Skudder teddy bear.
– This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine