Super Rugby Aotearoa: How rookie Samipeni Finau has impressed Sam Cane, the Chiefs

Chiefs co-captain Sam Cane said rookie loose forward Samipeni Finau was their most impressive player in pre-season before their Super Rugby Aotearoa opener last Friday.

That’s huge praise from the All Blacks skipper, who has spilled blood for the Chiefs for 10 years, and has gained a reputation for his high level of commitment and dedication to the game on and off the field.

Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan also had no hesitation in naming the uncontracted 21-year-old for his Super Rugby debut, despite still being a replacement player, ahead of more experienced loose forwards such as Mitchell Brown and Mitchell Karpik.

Finau, who was born in Tonga but moved to Auckland with his family in 2009, started alongside Cane and two-test All Black Luke Jacobson in last week’s 39-23 defeat against the Highlanders, playing 55 minutes in Hamilton, and the towering Waikato forward is still pinching himself.

“It’s been a long time coming and took a while to sink in during the week, but I enjoyed it. I’m grateful for the opportunity,” Finau told Stuff.

Rugby is in Finau’s blood.

He has an uncle who played for Japan, and two uncles who played for Tonga, who he represented when he came off the bench for Moana Pasifika in their historic meeting with the Māori All Blacks in Hamilton last December. He also said he is good friends with All Blacks and Highlanders loose forward Shannon Frizell, who he knew in Tonga.

“It was good to represent my country,” he said, “especially my mum and dad who were happy about it. It was good to give back to the people on the island.”

He said he looked up to legendary All Blacks loose forward Jerome Kaino, who was a notoriously strong defender, something McMillan said of Finau.

“He’s a big guy, he’s explosive, and his ability to carry and get gain line has been really impressive,” McMillan said. “And defensively, he’s got a lot of hurting in his intentions.”

An injury prevented Finau from getting his opportunity with the Crusaders after joining their squad as cover for a few weeks last year, but he has made his mark at the Chiefs after injuries to Lachlan Boshier (foot) and Pita Gus Sowakula (knee) opened the door for selection.

Comparisons can be made between Finau and another Tongan, 11-test All Black and Hurricane Vaea Fifita.

Both can play lock or loose forward, they’re strong, quick and athletic, with soft hands, and have great height (Finau is 1.93m) and reach to dominate at lineouts.

In fact, Finau was still playing fullback in his final school years but that changed once he left Manurewa High School for St Peter’s in Cambridge for his last year of First XV.

The former New Zealand under-20s representative also has a volleyball background, a perfect launchpad for sharpening his handling and aerial ability.

Finau said it was a “hard move” to leave his family for boarding in Cambridge, but the shift to Waikato laid the platform for his rugby development.

Alongside his Chiefs and Waikato team-mate, prop Oliver Norris, Finau was integral in helping St Peter’s win the National Co-Ed First XV title in 2017 and earned his place in the New Zealand Schools Barbarians team.

His coach at St Peter’s that year, former Chiefs and Waikato lock Sean Hohneck, said he has the potential to play at the highest level.

Finau made his Waikato debut in 2019 and has never looked back.

“He's a rare athlete,” Hohneck said. “He is certainly still fast enough to play fullback, but he is also very aggressive and physical when it comes to contact.”