Big midfielder Fekitoa could be find of season
Jamie Joseph leaned heavily on his experiences in the good old days when it came to fitting rookie recruit Malakai Fekitoa into his Highlanders setup for the 2014 Super Rugby season.
The results have been as stunning as they've been unexpected, with the 21-year-old Aucklander and Blues reject fast emerging as one of the finds of the season for the re-energised Highlanders.
Fekitoa, a bruising and bustling Tongan-born midfielder, was outstanding on Friday night in Dunedin in the Highlanders' 35-31 victory over the Hurricanes - the second win in four outings for the southern franchise. It took them to 11 points, three clear of the Crusaders who have played the same number of games.
That represents a pretty fair return for a Highlanders outfit who mustered just three victories for the entire 2013 season, despite a slew of big-name additions.
Fekitoa's recruitment has been a big factor in the Highlanders' form turnaround. At 1.87m and 100kg he's a decent physical specimen, and has made every post a winner in the midfield.
In the season-opener he stunned the Blues with a magic long-range try to punctuate an impressive display; on Friday night he made his biggest mark on defence where he levelled Hurricanes and attacked the breakdown with a ferocity that unnerved the spooked visitors.
"He's a big powerful centre, and we've never had an athlete like that there," Joseph said yesterday. "The key to Malakai as I saw it was, could he transition into life in Dunedin? From my playing days we had a lot of Island boys coming in, and once they'd settled into Dunedin life they really relished the difference in culture.
"I played with a bunch of these guys and [assistant coach] Tony [Brown] did as well. I thought if he could settle here he'd go forward, and that's exactly what's happened."
Joseph's transition plan saw Fekitoa put in a flat alongside Southland forwards John Hardie and Brayden Mitchell in a setup that could have made great reality TV fodder.
"Without knowing too much about Malakai's history, they'd be two characters he wouldn't normally be associated with. These are southern men, and they love racing and rugby. Those are the sort of learnings he's having, and it's paying off in his footy."
Joseph nominated Fekitoa as a key influence alongside All Blacks Ben Smith and Aaron Smith as the Highlanders made an important return to form after their deeply disappointing home loss to the Force last round.
The coach had been rapt at his team's start to the season, with the opening 29-21 victory over the Blues followed by an honourable 19-21 loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton. But after the bye, a hapless effort against the Force raised questions over whether the southern mojo had already gone.
But on Friday night the Highlanders were much more clinical, building an 18-9 halftime lead behind Lima Sopoaga's booming boot, and then striking early in the second spell with tries to Phil Burleigh and Patrick Osborne for a 35-12 advantage.
The Canes finished well, but were never going to haul them in.
"It was important we bounced back. With every win you get a little more belief, and these young guys needed to get that confidence to keep going," Joseph said.
He liked the clinical nature of the opening 60 minutes, and put the late lapses down to "mental immaturity" that's a big work-on.
Joseph says playoff hopes are not motivations at the franchise this year. "What I believe is if we prepare properly and leave everything out on the field then the results will follow."
Next up are the Blues at Eden Park on Saturday.
"They've got all their guns back, and we know what that will do for their confidence," Joseph says. "They've got the power, strength and speed. This is the team I guess the country is waiting to be put out on the field with Kaino and Nonu back.
"If we can bring out the clinical approach again and put pressure on them like we did the first time, then who knows what's around the corner. But if they run the ball at us all game it will be a tough night."
Sunday Star Times