Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Emergence of Fekitoa eases depth worries

Malakai Fekitoa has the ability to break open defences. Photo / Getty Images
Malakai Fekitoa has the ability to break open defences. Photo / Getty Images

Malakai Fekitoa is the penny that fell from heaven for the All Blacks.

The All Black coaches were last year fussing around Ben Smith and tentatively working with Ryan Crotty as potential options at centre.

They knew they didn't have the right answer. They knew they had to find an alternative to Conrad Smith and those two were pretty much their choices.

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Ben Smith managed the role with a degree of certainty without ever quite looking like it was the right place for him. Crotty was assured, steady and reliable - qualities that were good to have but not necessarily enough on their own.

But what were the selectors to do? There was no one else 12 months ago and, if Conrad Smith had been suddenly forced to fly home this time last year, the vibe would have been entirely different heading into last night's Rugby Championship opener.

As it was, the All Blacks barely blinked. Smith was on the red eye on Friday and, by the captain's run mid-morning, Richie McCaw was even finding positives about the elevation of Fekitoa.

There was no concern among the players. There was no sense of panic or feeling the All Blacks were being forced to put a plaster on a major wound.

There was none of that because Fekitoa has the makings of a long-term All Black. He's young and inexperienced and inevitably will make mistakes. Unlike Smith, he hasn't got a decade of test football behind him. He doesn't have the same ingrained knowledge or proven ability to make good decisions under pressure.

That's not something to worry about, though. Experience takes time to build and what Fekitoa has is the explosive running game to beat defenders and break defences. He has that same ability to knock men back on defence, turn a threatening opposition move into a counter-attack with his force in the tackle.

He can pass, step and read where he needs to be. He's a natural centre with all the skills and talent to be a major success. And this time 12 months ago, no one other than Auckland Rugby had, really, the first clue about the extent of his ability.

The value of Fekitoa to the All Blacks is now impossible to overstate. The world knows what's happened in the past when the All Blacks have had only one genuine test operator in that berth and been forced to try someone else. It hasn't gone well.

Fekitoa is the antidote to that. He is the security the All Blacks have wanted and needed for the past three years.

With a glut of first-fives, an emerging talent in Sam Cane at openside and locks, props and outside backs everywhere, the All Blacks have ticked most of the boxes with regards to building depth.

By the end of last year, there were three positions of concern. The successful return of Jerome Kaino has solved one problem - he has established he can cover No 8.

There didn't appear to be anyone on the horizon waiting to solve the problem at centre - until Fekitoa blossomed in the most unexpected way in Dunedin.

That just leaves hooker but, in Nathan Harris, there at least appears to be a solution waiting to present itself.

- Herald on Sunday

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