Fekitoa's tackles do the damage for Highlanders
Baby faced No 10 Hayden Parker may have been the hero but two game-changing tackles by All Black-in-waiting Malakai Fekitoa defined the most important victory of the Highlanders' Super Rugby season on Friday night.
Coach Jamie Joseph, who is weighing his future with the franchise, hailed Fekitoa's twin try-saving tackles on a rampaging Julian Savea as defining moments in Friday night's 18-16 victory over the Hurricanes in the capital.
The Highlanders' seventh victory of the season, and fifth in the last six, lifted them to within a point of Kiwi conference leader the Chiefs on 34 and left them on course for an unlikely playoff tilt. The Canes' top-six ambitions now hang by a thread after falling to their sixth defeat.
Both sides now face pivotal contests next Saturday, with the Highlanders hosting the Crusaders under the roof of their Dunedin stadium and the Canes entertaining defending champions the Chiefs back at the Cake Tin.
Joseph labelled Friday night's grind-out effort his team's best performance of the season - "It was a game of consequence where both teams really wanted it. There was no sneaking in the back door."
He hailed the defensive impact of 22-year-old rookie Fekitoa who showed he's more than just a dazzling attacking force.
"He showed a lot composure for a young man in a big game of rugby," said Joseph of his Tongan-born centre who made Steve Hansen's national training squad.
"He's been a consistent performer but last night with all the pressure and hoopla of being selected, the young fellow came through and had a big game."
Twice Fekitoa brought down Savea in full flight when he looked set to cause carnage, and Joseph felt his talented midfielder had proven in those dual plays what a well-rounded player he has become in a short time.
"That [second] tackle on Savea, I'm not sure many guys would have been able to make that - first for speed, then he dropped the big guy. It was a try all over really, so he's showing all the signs he's going to be good."
Parker's part in the win cannot be over-played either. The 23-year-old, filling in for the crocked Lima Sopoaga, scored all of the Highlanders' points with five penalties and a heady dropped goal that proved the match-winner. His tactical kicking was also top notch.
"He's performed exactly like that for Otago, but the big challenge was not playing a game the whole season, and when Lima got injured, to step up and carry our team forward," Joseph said yesterday.
"He's a good player and last night proved he can do it at the next level. I'm pretty proud of him.
"We trust him, and I think as a first five he feels that trust from his team-mates. The decision to take the drop-goal was huge. We'd only been down their half three or four times in the second half and each time we scored. That was a defining moment in his growth as a first five."
Joseph now has some big calls to make heading into a southern derby that should have the Dunedin stadium humming. Though Fekitoa was spotted post-game in a moon boot dealing with a toe injury, the coach didn't think there were any serious dings from a match where he had 12 front-liners unavailable. And with Sopoaga, Kurt Baker and Patrick Osborne all due back from injury this week, Joseph has plenty to think about "because we're playing well".
The set piece was sloppy at times from both sides, and slippery conditions stilted play somewhat, but Joseph loved his team's defence, especially in the forwards where they had been found wanting in their "get out of jail" effort last week against the Lions.
"If you think back to other games at this end of the season, they're all grinds. What I'm proud of is that under pressure they really performed."
- Sunday Star Times
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