Good on ya mate: Fekitoa pride of the South
Malakai Fekitoa speaks softly and runs like a tank.
The Tongan-born Auckland centre was not wanted by the Blues but he has played every minute of every game for his adopted franchise and was at the heart of the Highlanders' resurgence in their 27-20 win over the Bulls on Friday night.
His bullocking, bullying run to the tryline midway through the second half had the home team take a 14-point lead against their Springbok-laden opposition, and it was a neat piece of running and offloading which put Gareth Evans away for the Highlanders' first try after halftime.
But talk of Fekitoa as a potential All Black bolter this year must be considered premature.
The 21-year-old remains a work in progress - his defensive work has plenty of edges left to be knocked off it and he wants to continue developing his distribution.
Which is why Fekitoa was more excited about the way he was able to put Evans away against the Bulls, than the piece of brilliant individual finishing which had him crash over under the posts.
"It's the little things," Fekitoa said when asked what aspects of his game he was looking to refine.
"Mental stuff, timing of the pass, when to offload and when not to - especially bringing in my kicking game, although I don't use that much at the moment because our game plan is to go forward."
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph is obviously a big believer in Fekitoa's abilities but he pulled up short when asked whether he could be the franchise's next All Black.
"It's pretty early to say those sorts of things, it's only been half a dozen games," Joseph said.
"He's been a bit of a revelation for us down south. He's come out of nowhere and he's just getting better and better with games."
There is a deservedly contented air about the Highlanders as they head into their second bye with four wins from seven games, more than they achieved in all of last season.
Victory over the Bulls will give them more confidence as they head to South Africa after the bye, with games against the Sharks and Stormers, and the Lions waiting for them in Dunedin when they return.
Those teams will have taken note of a resolute Highlanders defence which did well to keep the Bulls to only a 10-point lead after a half-hour barrage in the first half.
They also held firm in the final 10 minutes as the Highlanders, helped by some lenient refereeing, defended a 14-point buffer until it was too late for the Bulls to do anything but grab a late bonus point.
Those opposition teams will also have noted a shaky Highlanders lineout and a scrum which struggled against the brute force and technical ability of the massive Bulls forward pack. The Highlanders gave up three tightheads and a host of penalties at scrumtime. They will take most of this week off before regathering to check on the progress of Brad Thorn, who came off with a bicep injury on Friday night.
The Highlanders will head to South Africa a day earlier than normal to give them the best chance of preparing for the Sharks.
Meanwhile, Highlanders lock Jarrad Hoeata has turned down offers from the Highlanders and his provincial team Taranaki in favour of a three-year deal with Welsh side the Cardiff Blues.
- The Southland Times
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