Centrestage awaits rising star Fekitoa

HERO WORSHIP: Young All Black Malakai Fekitoa can't wait to learn from Mr experienced - Conrad Smith.
HERO WORSHIP: Young All Black Malakai Fekitoa can't wait to learn from Mr experienced - Conrad Smith.

Of the five rookies named in the All Blacks training squad last week, Malakai Fekitoa appears best placed to survive the cut.

Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu is well in the frame when the squad is trimmed from 35 to 31, and Chiefs hooker Nathan Harris may have the inside running over Highlanders rake Liam Coltman for three tests against England next month.

But Fekitoa holds the most intrigue.

An explosive talent with lethal footwork, strength and pace, the Tongan-born prodigy has abilities not seen from a New Zealand centre since Frank Bunce dominated this crucial area from 1992-97.

Robbie Fruean comes close, but his ongoing heart issues limit consistent impact.

The All Blacks have long been screaming out for a genuine back- up to specialist No 13 Conrad Smith. And there's early optimism they may have found the solution.

Utility Ben Smith started the final five tests - against Australia, Japan, France, England and Ireland - in the 13 jersey last year, when there was effectively no-one else.

Now Fekitoa has emerged, however, Smith's natural talents can be utilised in his preferred roles at fullback and right wing.

Fekitoa isn't the finished product. With time, though, he will only mature.

"He's got the raw talent but still has a bit to learn," Bunce said. "They've done the right thing taking him in, considering we don't have a lot of depth behind Conrad. They've all but admitted the experiment with Ben Smith didn't work out as planned. He wasn't a failure but it's obvious he's better in other positions."

The challenge now facing the All Blacks is where Fekitoa fits into the mix.

We've seen before that two combative midfielders can be too predictable. Sonny Bill Williams and Ma'a Nonu didn't gel. And, in many ways, a Nonu-Fekitoa pairing poses similar questions.

Other than a synchronised halves pairing, the level of understanding required from the midfield is unmatched.

Traditionally at test level, two collision-focused players don't work there. The best midfield duos boast complementary skill- sets - Nonu and Smith's record- breaking 51 tests together is testament to the success of balance.

"You might get away with it once or twice but it's not ideal," Bunce said of a Nonu-Fekitoa combo. "You've got two very similar players who possess similar threats. Organising your defence becomes a lot easier. Having a difference in the capabilities of your midfielders is very important."

Fekitoa's rise serves to highlight Smith's continued, invaluable importance. From a defensive viewpoint, centre is the most difficult backline position. Being able to instinctively read the opposition, organise those around you, make spot tackles and not get caught alone are qualities the Hurricanes captain has near-perfected over 72 tests. He rarely makes mistakes.

Comparatively, Fekitoa has a tendency to rush out of the line and, at the elite level, this aspect needs to be developed most, though there isn't a better player to learn from than Smith.

"Once he gets a little bit older and settles in he'll be able to read defences and react better," Bunce said. "You only get that with time and experience in that position. It can't be taught. You can be trained to anticipate it through vision but it's mainly done over time."

Nonu is the classic case of a player who's evolved dramatically from his formative years. The world-class second five-eighth now boasts a superb long pass, expert vision and an improving kicking game.

"Malakai can develop those skills, while keeping that attacking prowess," Bunce said. "It's about him maturing into the position and being coached correctly. Not having the flair coached out of him, either."

To confirm his place in the reduced All Blacks squad Fekitoa needs to prove his versatility at the two three-day camps in Wellington and Christchurch, which start today.

The breakout Highlanders star must show he's capable of playing at second-five, where he's competing with Nonu and Ryan Crotty, and on the wing.

Do that and a place on the bench against England could be his.

Since making his test debut last season, Crotty has led the in- form Crusaders with renewed confidence, but at the next level he remains a solid rather than spectacular option.

"Ryan Crotty is not an X-factor player but he's not going to let you down," Bunce said.

Next year the midfield stocks could be flush. Richard Kahui is expected to return from Japan and push for inclusion in the World Cup squad, while Williams will also be back on the scene with the Chiefs. That's likely to mean there's no room for Crusaders utility Tom Taylor or injured Blues midfielder Francis Saili, who made their respective test debuts last year.

For now, though, Fekitoa has the chance to continue his irresistible impression.

AT A GLANCE The midfield contenders: Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Malakai Fekitoa, Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Richard Kahui, Francis Saili,Tom Taylor.

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