As the Southern Hemisphere giants prepare to face their touring northern counterparts, John Elliott takes a look at the players who have impressed enough in Super 15 Rugby to be included in their national squads. In this edition we discuss Malakai Fekitoa, a player set to debut in the All Blacks’ forthcoming test series against England.
It seems New Zealand’s perpetual assembly line of immensely talented rugby players just keeps churning out the goods. The embarrassment of rugby riches the Land of the Long White Cloud possesses in every position on the field has once again been revealed with players such as 21-year-old second-row Patrick Tuipulotu (Blues) coming to the fore. In words of high praise for the 120kg lock, Kiwi commentator and ex-All Black Ian Jones likened the promising star to a young Brad Thorn.
In the scrumhalf position we see the forever smiling (it seems) number nine TJ Perenara (Hurricanes) pushing incumbent Aaron Smith all the way. Perenara bring a new level to the term ‘live-wire’ and along with Tuipulotu has also been named on the bench by Steve Hansen for the first test against the English.
Added to this has been the explosive return of World Cup winning backrow Jerome Kaino (Blues) to Super Rugby. ‘JK’ (apologies Sir John, your moniker has been usurped) is in as destructive a form as ever in both defence and attack (just take a look at the five or so players he barged through to score against the Hurricanes last weekend), while also getting around the park and proving himself ruthlessly effective at ruck-time.
Kaino has shown that even after almost a three-year absence he is still more than able to don the famed black jersey and will be starting at number eight on Saturday.
However, arguably the biggest splash of the season by an up-and-coming player has been made by one Malakai Fekitoa.
Leading up to the beginning of the 2014 Super Rugby competition one of the major stories emanating from Auckland’s Eden Park was that rugby league superstar Benji Marshall was switching codes and togging out with the Blues for the upcoming season. Fans of rugby union everywhere waited with baited breath.
The news story that slipped under the radar was that the coaching team of Sirs John Kirwan and Graham Henry had no place in their Super Rugby squad for a young centre by the name of Malakai Fekitoa.
With the benefit of hindsight, know-it-all spectator types (such as myself) can now smugly taunt the two knights with cries of ‘what the hell were you thinking?’ Even though, if I am honest, I was as excited as any to see how the league convert fared with his code-switching experiment.
As we fast-forward to the present day, Marshall has already called time on his union career and returned to his roots. Fekitoa on the other hand…well, let’s just say his rising star has passed Benji’s on the way down. The Blues’ loss has certainly proven to be the Highlanders’ gain.
In his first Super Rugby season the Tongan-born 22-year-old has set the Southern Hemisphere competition alight with his attacking prowess and intelligent defensive qualities. It comes as no surprise that Steve Hansen named Malakai on his squad to face Stuart Lancaster’s Triple Crown winning side.
Possessed with scintillating pace and a highly elusive ability to change direction at top speeds, while also oozing raw power, he has tormented opposition defences all season long. An unforgettable individual try against the Sharks in Durban highlighting Fekitoa’s frightening talent.
Speaking of frightening, at 1.87m and 99kg he is quite a size for a centre, and his defensive prowess is just as impressive as his attacking ability. Just ask Conrad Smith about how hard Fekitoa hits (check out the video below).
The young Tongan, now eligible to represent New Zealand under the three-year residency rule, is close to the full package, and at 22 years old his potential is massive and is only set to improve further.
Á la Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll with Ireland, it seems the All Black midfield institution of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith (both aged 32) has been around forever. But as we have seen with BOD, a time comes when even the greatest of players have to call it a day.
Smith (as per always) is in terrific form for the Hurricanes, and his marshalling of the backline and the leadership qualities he offers to any team are invaluable.
His long-term midfield partner Nonu, has shown patches of both great and ropey form for the Blues this season. But as he has shown on numerous occasions, every time the dreadlocked one puts on that black jersey he lifts his game a couple of gears.
There is a lot of life left in these seasoned old salts yet, but when the time comes for a changing of the guard you can be sure Malakai Fekitoa will be crashing through the door.
Expect to hear his name again.
John Elliott, Pundit Arena.