Mark Nawaqanitawase: The rising Wallaby who could end up a household name

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“I have the confidence I can beat anyone”.

When Mark Nawaqanitawase looks you in the eye and says those words, it is a powerful statement – and one Wallabies coach Eddie Jones would love to hear before the World Cup opener in France.

There is a difference between confidence and arrogance and Nawaqanitawase, who has Fijian and Italian heritage, has none of the latter.

Nawaqanitawase, 22, has the biggest tongue-twister of a surname in the Wallabies squad. For the record, it’s pronounced nuh-wonga-neetar-wahzee.

By the end of the World Cup, the Nawaqanitawase surname could be on many rugby lovers’ lips.

“I don’t mean to toot my own horn. You need to [back yourself] when you’re on the field,” Nawaqanitawase tells this masthead. “If you don’t believe you’re going to do things, you’re not going to do them.

Mark Nawaqanitawase poses for a photo during the Wallabies’ World Cup welcome ceremony in Saint-Eteinne. Credit: Getty

“I just feel in myself when I get the ball, I can beat a player. If not, I can beat a few and set up someone else. I just feel like I can do things that can open up games.”

Nawaqanitawase epitomises the fearlessness of a youthful Wallabies squad that wants to change perceptions in France following five losses in a row.

Australia’s first examination takes place against Georgia on Saturday (Sunday 2am AEST) and Nawaqanitawase will be hunting five-pointers.

From seven Tests, since his debut against Italy on last year’s spring tour, Nawaqanitawase has accepted every challenge thrown at him, be it in the air, with ball in hand, or even in defence – an area of his game that was a major problem when he burst onto the scene in 2020 during his first season of Super Rugby at the Waratahs.

Mark Nawaqanitawase scores a try against France. Credit: Getty

His 90-metre intercept try against Argentina in Sydney this year should have been a match-winning moment, but it was not to be as the Wallabies conceded a late try.

His mother, Fiona, told him during high school it might be time to consider a plan B because she wasn’t sure if he’d make it as a rugby player. Nawaqanitawase proved her wrong and the pair laugh about it today.

At the beginning of last year, the product of St Patrick’s College, Strathfield was so far down the pecking order at the Waratahs he missed selection in an-intra squad trial match.

“I wasted those two years prior [to my Wallabies debut],” he says. “Last year I learned so much personally about myself and what I can do and how I [can] use my skills better.

Mark Nawaqanitawase with his mother, Fiona Tovehi, stepfather, Aisake Tovehi, and relative Malakai.Credit: Wolter Peeters

“When I started, I had that big start to my career at a young age, which you don’t see very often. If I wasn’t where I was now, you’d say, ‘Oh, he was one of those guys who had a good start and then let it all go’. If I knew what I knew now, maybe I would have made my Wallabies debut earlier.

“What I now know is the professionalism and realising I had a job that was pretty cool. I get to train all day and play footy on the weekend. There’s people out there digging holes and sitting at desks for hours and hours … I could have been doing that.

“I realised what I could do in footy, so I was like, ‘Why waste it?’ I had to switch on. I trained a little harder and focused on the little things like diet and maybe not playing as much video games. I had to grow up a bit. It’s two years where I could have grown up. Imagine where I could be if I had grown up.”

Four years ago, the Herald ran a story comparing a young Nawaqanitawase to Israel Folau. Former Wallabies figures are often reluctant to put such high expectations on the next big thing, but Nawaqanitawase loved the ‘Next Folau’ tag and feels it helped his rugby as he rose through the professional ranks, starting with a two-month trial at the Waratahs in late 2018.

“Did it help? I would say yes,” said Nawaqanitawase of comparisons to the 73-Test Wallaby. “He’s my favourite player. I used to watch him and I still love watching him. Getting compared to someone like that, I was stoked. You go out there with more confidence. Did it hinder me? I don’t think it did. I wouldn’t let it hinder me.”

A world ranking of ninth and five straight losses have hardly inspired a notoriously fickle Australian rugby public, despite Jones’ best attempts at promising that the team is moving in the right direction.

Nawaqanitawase will want to get into the Georgia game. An early touch will calm the nerves in front of thousands of travelling Wallabies fans who have seen the New South Welshman’s prowess at Super Rugby level.

Now it’s time for the world to see it.

“To think where I was there four years ago and now I could have the chance to play at a World Cup … I didn’t think this would happen,” he said.

Watch all the action from Rugby World Cup 2023 on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport. Every match ad-free, live and on demand in 4K UHD from September 9.

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