After being limited to training partner status during this year's Super rugby campaign, Malakai Fekitoa always had his sights set on the ITM Cup.
The Blues midfielder didn't see a regular-season match-day squad in his rookie year with Sir John Kirwan's side, although he did make his debut for the franchise when they played France in a friendly match in June.
The promising form of Francis Saili, Jackson Willison and Rene Ranger meant Fekitoa spent the season playing the odd Blues development game and turning out for his Pakuranga club side.
But club rugby doesn't get the pulse racing like it may have done a few years ago and the softly spoken Fekitoa said it was a welcome relief to begin his second ITM Cup campaign with Auckland.
"It's a good feeling knowing that after every week you'll get game time and you know what to work on and what you're looking for for the following week," Fekitoa said.
The Tongan-born 21-year-old, who is one of 14 children and also has two adopted siblings, came to New Zealand only a few years ago on a scholarship to Wesley College.
After two seasons in the 1st XV he was thrown in to Auckland's sevens team by then-coach Wayne Pivac and was named player of the national tournament in 2011.
Pivac has kept an eye on Fekitoa since he selected him for that sevens team. He also coached him at Pakuranga and that bond has now extended to Auckland's ITM Cup side.
Pivac is in his second stint coaching Auckland having first guided the team from 1999 to 2003 before spending time away mentoring Fiji and then North Harbour before returning to Auckland last year.
"I've worked with him since he left school and he's a great young kid," Pivac said of Fekitoa. "He's just a sponge. He soaks it up and he's come a long, long way. I think he makes some of the best defensive reads in the competition. There's still little work-ons in his defence but he makes some great hits."
One of those came last Saturday when Fekitoa met Canterbury midfielder Ryan Crotty during Auckland's 39-19 win at Eden Park.
Fekitoa's other highlight reel moment of 2013 was his scintillating individual effort in round four against Taranaki where he showed plenty of gas to beat five would-be tacklers on his way to a try-of-the-year worthy five-pointer.
Auckland's win over Canterbury last week put them in a position to lock up a top-two spot heading in to the playoffs but they meet the unbeaten Wellington at Westpac Stadium tonight.
"The challenge for us has been consistent performances on the road," Pivac said.
"We had that Waikato debacle [in week five] which was similar to the Bay of Plenty debacle last year. But we've had a look at how we prepare away from home compared with being at home and that's going to be the big challenge for us; to see if we can replicate that intensity and that attitude that we've brought to Eden Park at the Cake Tin."
Meanwhile, All Blacks wing Cory Jane will make his return to rugby via the bench for Wellington after recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered in February.