Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Full tilt from bench to All Black

After being dropped by the Blues, the one-season Highlander has stormed into tonight’s test side

Bolter isn't the right term for Malakai Fekitoa. Halfway through this year's Super Rugby he had to be on every amateur selector's radar.

His qualities were impossible to miss. But six months ago, who really knew about him? Who would have guessed in January this year that the man wearing the No 13 shirt for the third test of the June series would be Fekitoa?

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Likewise, who would have thought that Patrick Tuipulotu would be on the bench. Who had even heard of the big Blues lock six months ago?

Supposedly in this age of in-depth analysis and hyper connectivity between development paths and All Blacks, no one charges into test football unseen down the blindside.

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But these fast blasts from obscurity into the test team have become a consistent theme in the Steve Hansen era. He's had a particularly good handle on what is simmering below the surface.

Steven Luatua, Frank Halai, Charles Piutau and Francis Saili pulled it off last year. Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith and even Julian Savea were not being widely tipped - if at all - to be All Blacks when the 2012 season kicked off.

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Fekitoa, though, is perhaps the most remarkable of these fast-track cases. In November last year, when Conrad Smith was on sabbatical and the selectors pondered who might be best to replace him at centre, Fekitoa's name didn't come up.

Fekitoa had been let go by the Blues after not once featuring in a competition game for them in 2013. Hansen said this week that they knew about Fekitoa - but he didn't suggest they knew about him with any great sense of anticipation that he would be joining them this year.

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How far Fekitoa has come in the last six months is extraordinary. How far he has come full-stop is extraordinary. Fekitoa's journey to Hamilton had the most inauspicious beginnings.

He didn't walk for a year after a serious injury to his foot at the age of six when a door fell on him. First he wasn't able, then he wasn't allowed to play rugby - his mother not being keen.

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When he went away to high school in Tonga with his background unknown, he took up rugby. A holiday to visit family in New Zealand led to a scholarship at Wesley College where he played well enough to win a place at Auckland Rugby's academy.

Arguably, he was on a well-worn path to success at that stage - until the Blues let him go last year. They had to find room for Ma'a Nonu and Fekitoa, as talented as he was, didn't seem to have the discipline and focus the Blues required.

As Blues coach John Kirwan has said this year, the best thing for Fekitoa was to get out of Auckland and fend for himself.

There were influences in the city that were leading him astray and preventing him from being the player many felt he could be.

Getting regular game time was the other critical part of the puzzle and that was it - the combination of better living and regular playing took Fekitoa from barely known to All Black starter tonight.

- NZ Herald

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