The disappointment of being selected in an Australian schoolboys team but not getting the chance to play drove Jeremiah Nanai to earn his first Kangaroos jersey in the World Cup opener against Fiji.
Nanai was one of seven debutants named for the Headingley clash and coach Mal Meninga believes the teenage Cowboys forward is set to be a feature of Kangaroos teams for years to come.
So rapid has Nanai’s rise been that he would never have come into Kangaroos reckoning if the World Cup had gone ahead last year as scheduled, but his talents proved irresistible after scoring 18 tries for the Cowboys and starring in Origin.
With Samoan parents, Nanai had the opportunity to represent his heritage at the World Cup but the 19-year-old insisted after training at Salford’s AJ Bell Stadium that it was something he never seriously considered.
“I have always wanted to play for Aussie,” Nanai said. “I made the [Australian] under 15s team but, unfortunately, I didn’t get to play in that jersey.
“My goal when I was growing up was to one day play for Australia. I’m here now. My heritage is Samoan, but I have lived in Australia and I am just proud to be playing in this Aussie jersey.”
Kangaroos Debutants - Jeremiah Nanai
Nanai is one of four North Queensland players in the squad, alongside close mate Murray Taulagi, forward Reuben Cotter and experienced flyer Val Holmes.
Nanai, Cotter and Taulagi all made their Origin debuts for Queensland in 2022 and will now play alongside Holmes in the new-look Australian team.
“It is something you always dream of, representing a country that you love,” Taulagi said. “I was very nervous when Mal told me. I had butterflies and I’m still a bit in awe of the players who we have in this camp.
“I am just really grateful to be here, and to be a part of this team. It wasn’t really a goal for the year, I thought for myself that I was just trying to be a better person and be a better player for the Cowboys.
“To be recognised by the Origin coaches and Australian selectors is an honour and I just want to do my best for the team, prepare well and play well on Saturday.”
Nanai played just four NRL matches in 2021 and never considered he would be chosen for Queensland or Australia so soon.
“At the start of the season I just wanted to work hard and play NRL,” Nanai said. “I had a taste of NRL last year and that gave me motivation for this year to try and get a starting spot and play 80 minutes.
Match Highlights: New Zealand v Australia, Third Test, 1989
“To get the rookie of the year, I didn’t expect that. There were other great rookies like Taylan May and Joseph Suaalii, so I was just very blessed to get that award.
“In Origin, for Billy Slater to give me a call to let me play all three games it was nothing that I could ever have dreamed of, and to get called up by Mal to be part of the World Cup is crazy. I have still got butterflies.”
However, Meninga said Nanai deserved his place and predicted he would be a regular feature of the Australian team for a long time.
Kangaroos Debutants - Murray Taulagi
“He has had an extraordinary year,” Meninga said. “The Cowboys have been successful and he had a tremendous Origin series, particularly in Game III. He was unbelievably good for one so young and he continued that form on.
“You might think that he would fade at the back end of the year, but he didn’t. He kept that form up. I watched him train and he has got plenty of skill, so he won’t look out of place in a green and gold jersey.
“We have got some great young players in our footy team who will be around for a long time.”
Match: Australia v Fiji
Round 1 -
Venue: Emerald Headingley Stadium, Leeds