Anaru Rangi: The Rebels hooker who knows no quit

Even if you've only caught a handful of Melbourne Rebels games over the last couple of years, you're bound to have noticed the long hair pouring out of a headgear whose owner does everything at full speed.

The man inside the navy No. 2 jersey has, for much of that time, been Anaru Rangi. Vision of the dynamic hooker tearing into the defensive line or working back desperately in defence has become commonplace at the Rebels, and no more evident than in his 37th minute of last week's historic 27-22 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin.

"There was a bit of a lack of oxygen after that," Rangi said of the defensive play that ensured Highlanders winger Jonah Nareki was pushed over the sideline. "I just kind of pinned my ears back and hoped for the best, a couple of guys slowed him down a little bit, but I was coming in pretty hot."

While the Highlanders did manage to score a try before halftime and reduce the Rebels' lead to 10 points in the process, Rangi's effort typified the visitors' desperation and desire to record their maiden triumph in Dunedin.

But his journey to Melbourne from Wellington via Perth wasn't originally meant to be about rugby.

"I just decided one day that I had more friends in Perth than I did in Wellington at the time, and decided to move across and potentially look for work because I was in the transition of hanging the boots up," Rangi told ESPN.

"I am carpenter by trade and the work opportunities over there in the mines were pretty appealing so I sort of had my heart set on that. I was lucky to have some mates at a team called Nedlands in Perth and they said that they were interested in me coming and playing footy over there, so I did that just to make a few friends while I was there and waiting to get [started]."

From there, Rangi graduated first to the NRC and then into the Force's squad the following year (in 2016), playing his first Super Rugby game after only a handful of training sessions as the franchise's hooking stocks were hit by injury.

"I was 120-plus kilograms, I was nowhere near ready for a Super Rugby season but I somehow got through and have been in it ever since," Rangi said of his transition from part-time rugby player to regular Super Rugby starter.

"A lot of hard work, a lot of times and a big shift in attitude and professionalism; and it was big credit to the S&C team who were at the Force and are still at the Rebels, they made it their mission to get me in shape and have spent a lot of time and hard work [getting me fit]."

But his time in Perth wasn't without its heartache either. SANZAAR's failed expansion of Super Rugby ultimately brought about the Force's demise when the Australian Rugby Union agreed to cut one franchise as part of a revised 15-team competition. Super Rugby has since been cut back to 14 teams, a structure that will recommence from 2021 after last being used in 2010.

"It was definitely pretty tough; I think we were all pretty devastated," Rangi said. "I really enjoyed Perth, it was a great place to live but now Melbourne is home and I'm enjoying my rugby here.

"And luckily enough for me, a lot of the Force boys did come over so I knew a lot of people and I was familiar with the systems, so I came over and we just got cracking straight into it."

Just how much Rangi is enjoying his time in Melbourne can be seen in the three tries he has already scored this season -- though he says his work on the back of the Rebels maul is merely finishing off the forward pack's collective effort -- and his desire to leave it all out there on the park each week.

"I try be as physical and dynamic as I can, I like to think I have a really abrasive, in-your-face, style of game and I just try to replicate that every week. But for me, playing rugby is a dream job so I just go out there and try and play every game like it's my last and hang on as long as I can," he said.

Whether last week's gutsy victory turns out to be the start of something special for Rebels this season -- the franchise is still hunting its first playoff appearance -- remains to be seen. But Rangi is at least hopeful it has given his side the blueprint for success: Start fast and stick to the game plan.

"I think we've been getting better in each week," he said. "I know the results haven't been quite what we wanted, but the growth in the team has been one of the things we're focused on, and each week trying to get better. And on the weekend we managed to get that good start under our belts and managed to hold on to the end there."

Personally, the desire to pull on a Wallabies jersey remains as strong as ever. With Tolu Latu departed, and new coach Dave Rennie promising a clean selection slate where form will be rewarded, Rangi could certainly find himself in the mix alongside the likes of Alex Mafi, Folau Fainga'a and Rebels teammate Jordan Uelese.

"I don't think if it gives me any more drive, I've tried to push for [selection] at least the last three years," Rangi replied when asked whether Rennie's selections message had added to his motivation to win Test selection.

"But for me it's about getting out there and trying to get the top of my game and hopefully get rewarded for that. So all I can do is keep pushing hard and playing strong footy for the Rebels, and if we're a successful team people will start to notice, that's where my head's at with that."