Malakai Fekitoa benched as Auckland look to turn season round in Invercargill
Malakai Fekitoa is not having the best of farewell seasons in New Zealand rugby.
First the Toulon-bound midfielder lost his place in the All Blacks squad, and now he has been demoted to the bench in what is proving to be a decidedly indifferent final lap of the track with Auckland in the Mitre 10 Cup.
Fekitoa has been far from a lone ranger, but he has struggled for anything resembling his best form as Auckland have stumbled to just one win from their first five matches to sit just a point above Counties Manukau at the foot of the Premiership standings.
That has seen Auckland coach Nick White finally lose patience with his 24-test midfielder and drop him to the bench for Friday's crossover visit to the Southland Stags in Invercargill.
The Aucklanders are looking to extend a seven-year win streak over the 0-4 Stags, but they are going to have to make some significant improvements on what they've produced in recent weeks to achieve that down in the deep south.
White has made just three changes to the starting XV that went down 49- 38 to Taranaki at Eden Park last Saturday, George Moala's return from a hamstring injury to replace Fekitoa at No 13 among them. It will be the midfielder's 50th appearance for the province.
Sam Prattley is back from injury at loosehead prop, while outside back Melani Nanai will fill the No 11 jersey after returning from a calf injury.
There is also a potential debut off the bench for Pakuranga loose forward Dalton Papali'i, who damaged an ankle on New Zealand under-20s duty in June.
All Black Jerome Kaino will again wear the No 8 jersey as he continues down the comeback trail after 66 minutes last weekend.
White said his team would have to find some elusive form to start its southern double on a successful note.
"Going to Invercargill is not going to be easy. It's a tough place to play and they will be as desperate as us. It should be a real ding-dong battle," he said.
The coach was rapt to have more players available as some of his injured fraternity made timely returns.
"It is a lot better. It's the first week we haven't lost a lot of guys, so it makes it easier at training with combinations," he added.
After a sporadic display against Taranaki, White is calling for a more consistent effort over 80 minutes in Invercargill.
"The boys have been training well. It's not a lack of effort, more skill execution. I think we've conceded 19 tries in the first five games and 10 were from turnovers. The breakdown is a key area for us this weekend.
"The boys need to use that pressure on them, not to get bogged down, but to get a performance."
Auckland will head from Invercargill to Queenstown after Friday's match to prepare for their September 21 clash with Otago.
AUCKLAND: Jordan Trainor, Vince Aso, George Moala, TJ Faiane, Melani Nanai, Tyrone Elkington-MacDonald, Jono Hickey; Jerome Kaino, Blake Gibson, Taleni Seu, Ben Nee-Nee, Patrick Tuipulotu (c), Marcel Renata, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Sam Prattley. Reserves: Kurt Eklund, Emersen Tamura-Paki, Isi Tu'ungafasi, Dalton Papali'i, Sinclair Dominikovich-Murray, Lisati Milo-Harris, Malakai Fekitoa, Latiume Fosita.