Talented Tongan plays his way into Lions squad

Talented Tongan loose forward Vaea Fifita can afford a satisfied chuckle after helping the Wellington Axemen back into premier rugby.

That's because two years ago the 21-year-old got a bit of a shock when he realised his new club wasn't exactly in the shop front window.

"No, I thought it was a premier club, but when I came here it was a lower grade," Fifita said yesterday when asked if he'd had any reservations about joining the then senior 1 club in 2012. "But we'll be in the prems next year anyway, so its ok."

In fact, it's been a fair bit better than that.

The No 8 has not only helped the Wellington club back into the top flight, but he's played his way into the Wellington Lions squad in the process.

Fifita will start at No 8 for the Wellington XV against Manawatu today in Palmerston North, then on Saturday he'll play for the Axemen against Northern United in the Hardham Cup final.

Which is no surprise to former All Black No 8 and Wellington club coach Murray Mexted.

"Remember, this is only his second year outside of school," he said. "He's a natural rugby player, but he's got a long way to go.

"He was a lock in the Tongan under 18s and the No 8 position is a bit like centre in the backs. You have to have real nuance for what's happening around you strategically.

"Vaea's on a journey in that position, but he has very high potential. It's a project of mine to turn him into a top quality No 8."

Fifita's journey began in 2010 when the Tongan under 18 side played New Zealand schools and he gained a scholarship to complete his final year of school at Tamaki College.

Mexted then spotted his raw potential when he attended the International Rugby Academy of New Zealand in Palmerston North and decided to bring him to Wellington to oversee his development first hand.

Its been a perfect match for Fifita who is thriving in the Capital, working full-time for a local demolition company and training with the Lions.

Mexted notes that he also made his name out of the lower grades, playing senior thirds with Tawa in the 1970s.

And there's a bit of Mexted's style about the way Fifita plays, an athletic runner with long arms, deceptive pace and good ball skills.

He's a cousin of Cronulla NRL star Andrew Fifita and wouldn't be out of place taking the ball to the line in the rival code.

But for now he's hoping to make his mark in rugby union and gets a chance to press his claims for a place in Wellington's NPC squad today.

Manawatu have named a strong side for the annual fixture including Highlanders centre Jason Emery and prop Ma'afu Fia, and Hurricanes wider training group players halfback Papa Wharewera and captain and openside Callum Gibbins.

The match kicks off at 3pm.

Wellington XV: Joe Hill, Matt Proctor, Alapati Leiua, Shaun Treeby, Sinoti Sinoti, Lima Sopoaga, Frae Wilson, Vaea Fafita, Dean Brunsdon, Adam Hill, Shahn Eru, Pati Gaualofa, Taniela Koroi, Eugene Smith, Tolu Fahamokioa. Reserves: Sefo Setefano, Etimani Sului, Donald Brighouse, Presley Tufuga, Peter Sciascia, Pau Halafihi, Tauasosi Tuimavave, Paulo Aukuso, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Marvin Karawana, Mateaki Kafatolu, Andrew Wells.

Manawatu Evergreens: Lewis Marshall, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Jason Emery, Hamish Northcott, Newton Tudreu, Jade Te Rure, Papa Wharewera, Antonio Kirikiri, Callum Gibbins (c), Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Tom Hughes, Fraser Stone, Ma'afu Fia, Nick Grogan, Hubert Buydens. Reserves: Bryn Templeman, Jared Brock, Dan Squire, Rhys Pedersen, Nick Stirzaker, Tevita Taufu'i, Osea Rokubu, Damian Horgan. 

The Dominion Post