New starter Fekitoa ready to give it a 'Hundy'
MARC HINTON IN HAMILTON
At the Highlanders, from the very beginning of this sensational rookie season, Malakai Fekitoa was dubbed 'Hundy'' because the young man's effort was never far from 100 per cent.
It's that level of enthusiasm, commitment and, frankly, execution that has the 22-year-old Aucklander's team-mates and coaches predicting big things from him when he makes his first start as an All Black on Saturday night against England.
The Tonga-born midfielder has been a revelation for the Highlanders in their season of retribution in Super Rugby, and now after a cameo off the bench in the opening test of this compelling series against the English he gets a chance to nail down his status as heir apparent to the great Conrad Smith.
With Smith fracturing his thumb in the 28-27 victory in Dunedin, Fekitoa gets an opportunity that has those who know him best in this All Blacks group licking their proverbial lips in anticipation.
''I've had a front-row seat seeing him progress,'' said on-fire fullback, and Highlanders team-mate, Ben Smith in Hamilton today.
''It's just his attitude. Right from the get-go at the Highlanders we called him Hundy because everything he did was 100 per cent. Even when things weren't required to be 100 per cent he'd give it his all.
''He goes out there and puts everything out on the field, enjoys what he does, and I've think we've all seen it with the progression in his game throughout the year.''
All Blacks and Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith, a fellow with similar levels of zest, credited Fekitoa with a little bit of a Jekyll and Hyde personality in terms of his rugby.
''Coming from the islands he's got that natural humility and he's so quiet, but once they cross that white line they change -- from this quiet person to someone who comes alive. I wouldn't say he comes alive with his voice, but through his actions.
''In the Highlanders we watch his runs and there could be a wall in front of him and he'll still keep his legs pumping and get past the gain-line. It's been a key for us this year.''
Aaron Smith also offered an insight into Fekitoa's challenge in a week where he has family flying in from Tonga, the United States, and also from around the country.
''They're really good in this environment at making you feel comfortable. They're all about you doing your role really well. For Mala that helps him a lot. He doesn't have to do anything different. They tell you 'don't try and be an All Black, just be the guy who got you picked'.''
Coach Steve Hansen revealed today Fekitoa had been on their radar for a number of years, after he came to New Zealand as a schoolboy to take up a scholarship at Wesley College.
''He didn't know about us but we knew about him,'' quipped Hansen.
''He now knows about us and we really know about him... he was a very talented athlete, and just needed to get a few things sorted and that talent would come through, and he's done that.
''He's a good rugby player, and he's a fast learner and it means something to him. When you get a good athlete who really cares about what he does then you've got something to work with.''
Fekitoa cut a bashful figure at today's media session at the team hotel, humbled by his rapid rise through the ranks this season and the opportunity it's now served up.
''It means everything. It's huge for me and my family,'' he said before revealing that a good slice of that famili will be there Saturday using up his ticket allocation, and then some.
He said he's been soaking up the knowledge of Conrad Smith ever since coming into camp, and is relishing the prospect of partnering the blockbusting Ma'a Nonu in midfield - a tandem that Hansen believes is a lot more complementary than many are predicting.
''It's huge having those guys there, and having Conrad around the environment is massive. He tells me what to do, what to do better, and what to fix in my game,'' Fekitoa said.
Nervous or excited? Bit of both, he reckoned.
''Those are big shoes to fill, but I'm excited to get the chance and to be out there with Ma'a. I've learned a lot this week and I've prepared well to hopefully do the job.''
Ben Smith, who's doing a thing or two right at the moment, has pretty simple advice for his wide-eyed young team-mate.
''Mala is doing really well - he's getting the best out of people in the environment, and getting the best out of the coaches, Then, it's just going out there and enjoying it and, for him, backing his skills.
''He's got an awesome skillset. He's got something really special and if he brings that on Saturday I'm sure he'll go really well.''
Maybe even close to a hundy.
Which rugby player would you be most inclined to bend selection rules for?