Malakai Fekitoa running down every obstacle

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:02 30/03/2014
Malaki Fekitoa
Getty Images
BIG IMPACT: Malaki Fekitoa has been a revelation for the Highlanders with his shift south.

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He's setting Super Rugby alight with barnstorming runs and bone-crunching tackles, but as a child Malakai Fekitoa could not walk for a year.

A freak accident almost left the now power-packed Highlanders centre permanently disabled, and had his mother warning him off ever playing rugby. His father, who died after a car crash, never lived to see his son star as a professional sportsman.

Only Fekitoa's extreme dedication, including running more than 20km to and from training sessions, and ignoring the taunts of those who wrote him off, has got him to this point where the 21-year-old is already regarded as an early contender for Super Rugby rookie of the year.

Fekitoa's journey to prominence is a unique one. Growing up on Tonga's sparsely populated Ha'apai islands, he was the eighth of 15 children, including an adopted brother.

Not for him the branded clothes, smartphones and hashtags of so many youngsters in his new home of New Zealand.

As soon as he could walk, Fekitoa - ditching his jandals and t-shirts at the first opportunity - climbed trees and snuck off to hunt wild pigs with his older brothers. His island life was bliss. 

But on one particular occasion while fooling around with cousins, a game of tag went horribly wrong when a large door from the village hall fell on the-then diminutive Fekitoa, crushing him.

His hip was dislocated, an especially worrying injury when bones and muscles are in their infancy.

Fekitoa suffered immense and long-lasting pain. With limited opportunities to reach health facilities, his concerned parents turned to family for help healing their young son.

"My mum and dad sent me to stay with my grandmother," Fekitoa told the Sunday Star-Times.

 "She used to give me a Tongan massage with warm water every day to try and get me to walk again. I used to cry all the time; all my cousins still mock me about it."

The treatment continued for 12 months and Fekitoa missed his first year of school. When he finally got to attend, it was a difficult start.

"I used to limp badly. They [schoolmates] used to laugh and say I walked like a girl.

"Mum told me not to play rugby or any contact sport. I would get a hiding if I did."

Not to be deterred, Fekitoa turned to athletics. Running, especially, helped strengthen his weakened hip. He ran everywhere, eventually into the limelight.

His mum relented on the rugby ban, and Fekitoa was such a sensation he made the Tongan sevens team which toured New Zealand in 2009 as a teenager. His impact won him a scholarship to Wesley College, south of Auckland, where past pupils include Jonah Lomu.

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Fekitoa's running continued. He didn't have a car when he moved to the ''big smoke''. He once ran barefoot from Penrose to Western Springs for a game of touch, where he was the best player. Then he ran home again, a 24km round trip.

He debuted for Auckland in 2012, and his NPC coach Wayne Pivac now jokingly calls him Tonga's Forrest Gump.

''Now I'm in the professional scene we're not allowed to do anything outside of training,'' Fekitoa said. ''But sometimes if I don't have a ride to training, I'll run. During last year's NPC season I'd run to training lots.''

Sir Gordon Tietjens regarded Fekitoa as the best player at the national sevens in 2011. 

But he has only this year become eligible for a black jersey.   

''I had to stand down for two years [from international representation],'' Fekitoa said.

''This year I'm eligible for New Zealand. I'm just waiting for my chance. [Making the NZ sevens team for] the Olympics would be amazing.''

Family remains an integral part of Fekitoa's world. He lost his father when he was 14, before he laced his first rugby boot.

Eni Fekitoa, 48, died of complications following a car crash.

''He got sick and died. I hadn't played rugby before then, so he never got to see me play.''

At 21, Fekitoa has assumed the responsibility of caring for his mother.  

''Every month when I get my allowance I send $1000 home to my mum to pay the bills. My other brothers and sisters are married and have kids to feed. I'm the only single one [who can] help out mum.''

Every Christmas he tries to return to Ha'apai. Last year, there were more than 50 family members crammed into the same small village home.  

''I went home last December and it was a full house. There were us kids and all the nieces and nephews. I had to sleep on the ground and there was a tent around the house.''

Emotions overflowed when Fekitoa played for the Highlanders in last month's Super Rugby opener against his former team the Blues, who didn't renew his contract after one appearance in his debut season.

Fekitoa scored a stunning solo try and as he rose, he slammed the ball into the turf. The message was clear.

''I just wanted to let a few people know I am good enough to play at this level. That was the hardest week in my career. I couldn't sleep every night. Throughout the week I saw myself run through the line. When it happened I was very grateful. It was an amazing feeling.''

Fekitoa's rise has come through gritty determination and courage, and he is well aware and appreciative of the privileged life he leads as a professional rugby player.

Running out for the Highlanders at Eden Park, his old home ground, last night was another special moment.

Expect to see plenty more of Fekitoa.

Forrest Gump, after all, just kept on running.

- Sunday Star Times

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