Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Fekitoa proves the right choice

Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa has taken his chances and should earn a spot in the ABs squad. Photo / Getty Images
Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa has taken his chances and should earn a spot in the ABs squad. Photo / Getty Images

Malakai Fekitoa, as long as he stays injury free, will almost certainly be named in the All Black squad to play England. It will be one of the more heart-warming stories when he makes it - a young man who has battled to the top of the game against all kinds of adversity.

Fekitoa's triumph against a serious foot injury, poverty, family tragedy and professional rejection are the stuff of Hollywood.

There is also, though, an alternative parallel version of his story being played out across the barrier in the other code.

Fekitoa's story wasn't necessarily destined to play out the way it has. It wasn't guaranteed to be his.

Back in 2010, Fekitoa was catching the eye at Wesley College. Konrad Hurrell was doing much the same as part of the Auckland Grammar 1st XV. Superficially at least, there appeared many similarities.

Both boys had arrived at their schools from Tonga on scholarships.

They were powerful, direct, hard-running midfielders with explosive qualities. Fekitoa has gone on to star at Super Rugby level, while Hurrell has impressed in the NRL, so much so he has caught the eye of the Chiefs' management team.

When they were schoolboys, Auckland Rugby had both in their sights. Each year, they take 12 boys into their Academy programme. It was possible they could have found room for both Hurrell and Fekitoa, but it was more likely only one would be offered a development contract.

"We did a lot of analysis on both of them," recalls Auckland high performance director Ant Strachan. "Konrad was a bit more physical and a bit bigger. Malakai was better in his footwork, dexterity and speed and repeat speed endurance. He was one of the fittest players actually, recording up around 19 to 20 in the yo-yo test.

"Konrad's pass and catch was marginal, particularly off his left hand, and he had a tendency to plant his feet on defence and put his head down. He couldn't kick either.

"Malakai's pass and catch was marginal as well and he didn't have much of a kicking game either but when we looked at his talent and core skills, we felt he was ahead.

"It was our view with Konrad that we were looking at an athlete who was ideally suited to league."

Warriors general manager of football Dean Bell thought much the same and Hurrell was at Mt Smart the following year. Given the way the respective careers of both men have unfolded, Auckland, so often accused of defective talent identification, look like they got this one exactly right.

The concern with Hurrell as a rugby player was his lack of repeat speed. His size was an obvious strength, a less obvious weakness. There wasn't much evidence either of Hurrell being an exploiter of space once he'd bulldozed his way through the first line of defence.

"He looked to run over the top of players," says Strachan of Hurrell.

"When he was in the clear, he didn't always look for his support or know how to best use the ball." Some of Hurrell's de-ficiencies have been nullified by his switch to league. His lack of speed endurance can be better hidden: his tendency to take contact and win hard yards is a strength.

But some of the bigger concerns Auckland had four years ago are still manifesting in Hurrell's game.

His lack of conditioning worried Auckland. His lack of speed endurance they feared would be hard to fix. This is perhaps where they saw the biggest difference between Fekitoa and Hurrell; the former they felt would be responsive to coaching input. In Fekitoa, they saw a young man with an incredible work ethic. They didn't have the same conviction about Hurrell.

If the Chiefs are to act on their interest in him, they must address these aspects of his game.

Fekitoa is now fulfilling that promise Auckland saw. He is proving they were right to see him as someone who could eradicate flaws from his game.

His Auckland coach Wayne Pivac, who along with assistant Paul Feeney has been instrumental in developing Fekitoa, says their protege still has some way to go. But he's considerably better than he was 12 months ago and in the world of professional rugby, it's those who don't stand still that thrive.

"My original assessment of Malakai was that he was a player whose positives outweighed the negatives," says Pivac. "We always felt that he was the sort of player who might make five line breaks in a game, maybe miss two tackles and throw one bad pass, so you would always be ahead. But because we felt he was coachable and had rugby smarts, that we'd see the balance in time tip more in favour of the positives."

Pivac has been proven right. Fekitoa has improved his defensive reading and post-line break awareness. He's tightened his handling and distribution, and while there is plenty more work to do, he's at a level now where he is, probably, the heir apparent to Conrad Smith.

- Herald on Sunday

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