Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Fekitoa justifies faith of All Black coaches

Malakai Fekitoa.
Malakai Fekitoa.

It was, to put it mildly, a surprise to see Malakai Fekitoa enter the fray at Eden Park with 20 minutes to go.

With the game locked at 9-all and England looking capable of winning, it didn't seem like the moment to inject an uncapped 22-year-old.

One mistake and the game could be gone. One mistake and the season could have started horribly for the All Blacks.

Although Ma'a Nonu hadn't played particularly well, it was his 89th test and he, more than most, knows what is required in the final quarter of an arm-wrestle.

The fact that the All Black coaches were willing to inject Fekitoa at Nonu's expense gives an indication of how much confidence the panel has in the youngster.

When the All Blacks were in a worse place against Ireland last year, they had the option of bringing on the uncapped TJ Perenara at halfback. They could see Aaron Smith was at the edge of his limits but better, they felt, to have him out there clinging on than expose Perenara.

They didn't think he was ready to handle a contest of that drama and intensity.

Perhaps Saturday's encounter wasn't as desperate as the game against Ireland last year, but still, it was a big call to blood Fekitoa at that particular juncture.

Pressure like that can break a young man - kill a test career before it even starts. It's a massive task playing test football as it is - harder again, by some margin, to come in with the scores tied and a nation increasingly anxious about the way things are going.

Steve Hansen later explained that he felt Fekitoa would lift the energy and excitement and potentially break the stranglehold. And with that, we can safely deduce they have huge faith in not only his ability to make things happen, but also his mental capacity.

And they were mostly rewarded for that risk. Fekitoa got involved, wanted to get his hands on the ball and he made his tackles.

That will have further confirmed among the panel that they have something special in their midst - a player who might, as hard as it may seem today, go past Conrad Smith by the World Cup next year.

That's not to write off the veteran. But Mils Muliaina was an IRB World Player of the Year nominee in 2010 and then usurped by the quite brilliant Israel Dagg nine months later.

Things move quickly in test rugby and Fekitoa is on his way. Watch the momentum build.

- NZ Herald

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Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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