Just call me Mark: Waratahs teen Nawaqanitawase makes a name for himself on debut

Super Rugby
by Oliver Lembke

He's the 190cm flyer set to keep both opposition defences and rugby commentators on their toes in 2020.

Waratahs young gun Mark Nawaqanitawase announced himself to the rugby world after starring on debut for the Waratahs in their trial win over the Highlanders on Friday night.

The 19-year-old was a surprise selection by Rob Penney at fullback but Nawaqanitawase more than justified the choice by turning in a crowd-pleasing performance that oozed composure.

The Eastwood flyer looked dangerous with every touch, displaying electric feet and silky skills and he deservedly received a warm round of applause from the Waratahs faithful when he was eventually replaced with four minutes remaining.

The Tahs travel to Christchurch in round one to face three-time defending champions, the Crusaders. It is the toughest road trip in Super Rugby and without a doubt a daunting task for even the most experienced Rugby players.

But Penney admitted he had no doubt that Nawaqanitawase is ready for selection.

"He has some gifts, which you saw tonight, and he is unfazed by the step up, which is a wonderful attribute to have," Penney said.

The humble youngster was coy when pressed post-match on his coach's belief in him being Super Rugby-ready.

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"I'll have to hear it from Rob himself, I don't want to get ahead of myself" he laughed.

"It's definitely a goal of mine (to play Super Rugby this year). If it happens it happens, and if it doesn't, I'll have to keep on trying."

It’s been a meteoric rise to the brink of Super Rugby for the Burwood-raised Nawaqanitawase.

After missing out on all representative honours during school, Mark was scouted by Gen Blue coach Shannon Fraser, who called the then year 12 student and asked him to come in for a trial with the academy.

Just six months later he was scoring tries for fun on the wing for the Junior Wallabies on their way to the final of the 2019 Under 20s World Cup, and more excellent form for NSW Country in the NRC led to Nawaqanitawase landing his first contract with Waratahs.

He's never lived there but Nawaqanitawase plays with a style that reflects his Fijian heritage. He is certainly not afraid to take a chance which was evident on Friday night when he threw numerous flick passes, one which directly led to a try to fellow debutant teammate Michael McDonald.

"I don't think too much into that, I just go out there and play and whatever happens happens, If I can see it's on you just have to go with it," Nawaqanitawase said.

It was Mark's first start at fullback since leaving school, and he credited one of the best in the business and Friday night's waterboy, Kurtley Beale, with helping him to adjust back to the nuances at life at the back.

"He's a wealth of knowledge; he's got so much skill and its easy for him to pass it on, it was good to get some feedback and tips on what I could do to help the team," Nawaqanitawase said.

Much has been made of the gap left by Bernard Foley at no.10 for NSW, but with Beale likely to come in and start at ten in Christchurch, the overlooked vacancy is the one left by Israel Folau at no.15.

Nawaqanitawase may have presented himself as the solution, particularly with an extremely athletic vertical leap that reminds of Folau and offers consistent safety under the high ball.

'Marky Mark', as his teammates have dubbed him, wasn't the only member of the famed Junior Wallabies class of 2019 that impressed in the Waratahs first trial. Sydney Uni prop Angus Bell had some barnstorming runs up the middle, while fellow 19-year-old Carlo Tizzano bagged two second half tries.

The performance of the young brigade would have certainly given Penney plenty of food for thought leading into round one, and displayed to NSW fans that this season could be a cause for optimism despite the departures of Foley, Sekope Kepu and Folau.

Nawaqanitawase was particularly complimentary of his former Australian under 20s teammates.

"Angus Bell, Joey Walton, Will Harrison, the whole lot of them, everyone looked like it was natural out the and didn't have any nerves, it was good to watch," Nawaqanitawase said.

For the record - or if you're looking to impress your mates around the barbeque in the coming weeks - the correct pronunciation of Nawaqanitawase is "NUH-WANG-GAH-KNEE-TAH-WAHZAY".

But the humble 19-year-old is fine with something much more straightforward.

"All through school I had teachers and mates always trying to pronounce it, but I just tell them Mark's easier, rather than them try 17 times to get it right," he said.

"Just call me Mark."