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Fekitoa finds his feet in the All Black centres

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 22:47 21/06/2014
Malakai Fekitoa
MARK TAYLOR/Fairfax NZ
HAVE A GO: Malakai Fekitoa take a run at the English line with centre partner Ma'a Nonu in support.

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Take a deep breath, as the All Blacks' long-term worries at centre may cease.

Of course, portraying Malakai Fekitoa as an instant success after his first starting test seems a tad premature.

The Tongan-born sensation faces much sterner examinations of his complete skill set than Manu Tuilagi and his turnstile English partner Kyle Eastmond offered in Hamilton tonight.

But after a nervous opening, Fekitoa immediately found his feet.

Crucially, it was clear he was not out of place, nor overawed by the occasion. Some players can't handle the significant step-up required. That cannot be said for this 22-year-old talent. The warm applause as he was replaced by Ryan Crotty after a 64-minute stint summed it up. 

"I was nervous at the start," Fekitoa reflected. "There was a lot of information to take in against a hungry England side. I knew it was going to be hard up against 120kg Manu."

Francis Saili, making his test debut on the same ground against Argentina last year, endured a difficult evening and, through injury, has barely been sighted since. Comparatively, Fekitoa will be much more content with his contribution and ironically has already well surpassed Saili in the pecking order.   

What a rise it has been this year for the Highlanders rookie, who was near-crippled as a child by a freak accident, when a door fell on his hip, forcing him to suffer immense pain during traditional Island massage from his grandmother for over a year.

His mother - with loving affection in mind no doubt - forbade her son from ever playing rugby after the incident. She must have shed a tear of joy after travelling from her homeland to Hamilton and witnessing the culmination of his incredible journey. Fekitoa's brother and sister also made the trip from America to show their support.

"It was special, massive for me from where I came from. It was a massive achievement for myself and my family. I was good to see them after the game."

At times their sibling was guilty of going on his own and getting isolated. Nerves also saw him push a needless offload after his first carry. That's where the nit-picking ends, though.

Fekitoa had to wait 10 minutes for his first carry, another 13 for his second but finished with seven in the first half alone. He was hungry; freed his hands nicely and grew in confidence with each play.

With his third touch, England first five-eighth Freddie Burns and Eastmond were brushed aside with effortless ease. And as the match wore on his crashes in midfield became a settling presence. He also scrambled well to pull down Tuilagi straight after halftime and appeared out on his feet when replaced. 

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Further assessment is needed before his combination with Ma'a Nonu can be truly scored. Former All Blacks centre Frank Bunce wasn't alone in holding reservations about their ability to gel. On first glance the pair deserves a second chance.

Thankfully, we can relax a little should Conrad Smith fall over between now and next year's World Cup. Smith's experienced, clam head and general-like organisation is irreplaceable.   

Only the injury-prone Richard Kahui came close to challenging him and offering suitable back-up. Last year's experiment with fullback-come-wing Ben Smith highlighted how lean depth was in the pivotal role and, predictably, caused more than an ounce of panic among the Kiwi rugby public.

Yes, it's early days and the grooming process is far from complete. Fekitoa needs to be allowed to make the odd mistake as his progression continues.

But as far as starting points go, little more could have been asked. He will only get better. Only glimpses of his attacking ability - his fast feet and strength - were on show. Those attributes frequently lit up the Highlanders' season and you get the sense similar moments will continue to be savoured in the black jersey for many years to come.

"He did his basic roles very well, particularly in that first 30 to 40 minutes," All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster assessed. "He ran some good hard lines and demanded a lot of attention from their defence and ultimately opened some space for others. It wasn't perfect; there were a couple of decisions when he carried and could have passed but overall he'll be very satisfied."

- Stuff

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