Malakai Fekitoa is a new face in the All Blacks squad and big things are expected of the Highlanders centre. Here's why…
THE PROMOTION process in modern boxing is just as important as what goes on inside the ring. Alongside press conferences and trash talking, an essential part of all this is the broadcaster’s tagline for any given bout. For instance, George Groves’s knockout loss to Carl Froch on Saturday was termed ‘Unfinished Business’ by Sky Sports.
As the Six Nations finished on a bright note for England, ‘The Reality Check’ seemed a good moniker for their summer tour to New Zealand. Following a first Triple Crown in 11 years and a 50-point thrashing of Italy, Stuart Lancaster’s young side would head Down Under to see exactly where they stood.
To most – though crucially not those inside the camp – such optimism seems a long way off. Injuries and availability makes ‘Mission Improbable’ more appropriate, especially for Saturday’s opener at Eden Park. A few factors, not least the phenomenal form of a certain 22-year-old, is nudging ‘Mission Impossible’ into play for the more cynical.
Named on Monday in Steve Hansen’s 31-man squad for the three-match series, Malakai Fekitoa is likely to get a first taste of Test rugby this month. In terms of raw materials, he’s close to flawless – think Manu Tuilagi but half an inch taller and a touch more lithe, but still muscle-bound and bristling with pace and power. In terms of ability, he’s good enough to win 80 caps and patrol New Zealand’s midfield for the next decade.
To offer some perspective, this is Fekitoa’s first Super Rugby campaign. He has played every second of the Highlanders’ 14 games since making an electric try-scoring debut back in February against the Blues, who let him go at the end of last season. That decision looks mighty misguided now. Here are the statistics to match the hyperbole.
Over 1040 minutes, the centre has made 121 carries into contact, breaking 51 tackles. He has offloaded 16 times and sliced through for clean line breaks on another ten occasions. Among his six tries have been a couple of jaw-droppers, the pick of them probably a 60-metre stunner that left a quartet of Sharks defenders grasping at nothing.
Defensively, Fekitoa offers typical Polynesian muscle – one hit on Hurricanes’ Conrad Smith was simply savage. However, he is also intelligent in a drift system. Instead of panicking, he stalks the inside shoulder of attackers and backs his speed to cut off any outside arcs.
Before we get too carried away, there are rough edges to this diamond. An off-the-ball body-check this weekend resulted in Ben Smith’s try for the Highlanders being disallowed. He could perhaps use his frame to better effect at the breakdown and a one-handed offload is not always the most accurate. That said, such criticism is seriously pernickety.
Fekitoa is light years in front of where Ma’a Nonu was at the same age. An innate ability to create overlaps by running hard lines before deftly shipping the ball onto a wider player in one deft movement sets him apart there. Nonu was merely a battering ram earlier in his career, but improved kicking and distribution to become a fantastically well-rounded footballer. If Fekitoa develops in a similar manner, we have a global superstar on our hands.
One thing is for sure, the Highlander possesses incredible drive – his mentality is perhaps the most striking thing about him. On receiving the All Blacks call-up, he wept with joy and rang his mother on Tonga’s Hapa’ai Islands. She has looked after him and his 14 siblings on her own since the death of Fekitoa’s father Eni following a car crash eight years ago.
Remarkably, a 14-year-old Malakai had not yet started playing rugby at that point. As a youngster, an accident left him with a dislocated hip that made walking difficult for a whole year. He had to learn to run again, eventually being selected to tour New Zealand with Tonga’s sevens side in 2009. Fekitoa caught the eye, won a scholarship to Wesley College outside Auckland – alma mater of Jonah Lomu – and was snapped up by the Blues.
Almost comically soft-spoken for such a ferocious athlete, he says intense fitness work in the off-season has allowed him to capitalise on the Highlanders’ gamble. Only qualifying for an All Black jersey on the three-year residency rule, Fekitoa would ruffle a few feathers should he get selected. But the current debate on the rugby relationship between the Pacific Islands and New Zealand is not for prospective players to get worked up about. It’s tough to begrudge him the chance to win a World Cup and ensure his family never go without.
Outstanding Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu is the other potential debutant among Hansen’s party. Given Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are fairly tough to shift from the engine room, his best bet for Saturday is a bench berth. It’s different for Fekitoa, who appears to be in a straight shoot-out for the No 13 shirt with Conrad Smith, excellent but ageing.
Nothing is guaranteed. Some say Nonu and Fekitoa are too similar to form a centre partnership and Smith’s experience is too important to cast aside. Put it this way though, England probably hope Hansen feels the same.
Read a feature with Crusaders and All Blacks full-back Israel Dagg in the latest issue of Rugby World, on sale now.