Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Central to future glories

Malakai Fekitoa should see himself in an All Black jersey as selectors look to find an heir for Conrad Smith

If Conrad Smith were to be injured at any stage in the June series, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the All Blacks throw Fekitoa the No13 jersey ahead of Ben Smith. Photo / Getty Images
If Conrad Smith were to be injured at any stage in the June series, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the All Blacks throw Fekitoa the No13 jersey ahead of Ben Smith. Photo / Getty Images

Redemption will be sweet for Malakai Fekitoa when he's inevitably named in the All Black squad for the June tests.

After two years of searching, the All Blacks may at last have found their alternative man at centre.

They think they have in Fekitoa a young man with all the explosive power and rugby gifts to be anointed the heir apparent to Conrad Smith.

They have seen enough that they are almost certainly going to find a place for Fekitoa in their June squad: maybe the Highlanders centre won't be given any game time, but he'll be exposed to the All Black world and the expectations and pressures that come with it.

Some obvious facets of Fekitoa's work have impressed. His stunning footwork and acceleration could hardly go unnoticed. His incredible try to sink the Sharks last week was an amalgamation of his best bits: awareness, explosiveness, raw power, speed, dexterity and confidence.

Fekitoa is a line-breaking centre and the All Blacks haven't had one of those for an age.

But he's developing into more than that, which is why the All Blacks think he's now ready for test football.

He's better at picking when to throw himself into rucks and has improved his technical proficiency at cleaning out rucks in the wider channels; that left-hand passing flaw identified from his schooldays is less obvious and it's only occasionally now that he makes a mistake with his defensive reading.

If Smith were to be injured at any stage in the June series, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the All Blacks throw Fekitoa the No13 jersey ahead of Ben Smith.

That could be interpreted as a cross being put through the experiment of using Ben Smith at centre, but not so. The rationale for Smith's involvement there last year was that he was seen, despite his lack of experience at centre, as a better option than any of the specialists.

More plainly put - none of the aspiring candidates at centre was considered ready to handle test rugby. Fekitoa has changed the equation. His path will probably look much like Francis Saili's did last year - a squad place in June that might not yield a cap; some early week training time with the squad during the Rugby Championship before being released to play for Auckland and, all going well, a place on the end-of-year tour.

That Fekitoa will go from Super Rugby reject to All Black in 12 months, will give the impression he's yet another one the Blues wrongly let go. It's not that simple, though. Last year, Fekitoa's focus may not have been as firmly on rugby as it should. Distractions in Auckland were pulling him in the wrong direction off the field. The work-ons identified by Blues coach John Kirwan weren't being worked on and so when the chance to buy Ma'a Nonu came up, Fekitoa was the casualty.

It wasn't a decision borne by ignorance or a failure to see what he had in Fekitoa. It was a decision made in the long-term interests of the player who, it was felt, would benefit from being away from home and familiar surrounds.

Ideally the Blues would have loaned him for a year to the Highlanders but not only do the rules not allow it, Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph wasn't going to turn Fekitoa into an All Black and then hand him back ready made.

- Herald on Sunday

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