Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Hansen has no doubt Fekitoa up to task

Malakai Fekitoa (right) will need to stay connected with Ma'a Nonu (left) against an attack featuring the strike power of Israel Folau. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Malakai Fekitoa (right) will need to stay connected with Ma'a Nonu (left) against an attack featuring the strike power of Israel Folau. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Rather than ease himself into tonight's Bledisloe Cup clash, Malakai Fekitoa finds himself in the spotlight as he prepares to fill the No13 jersey in the absence of Conrad Smith.

One of the qualities the All Blacks selectors like in the Highlanders' centre is his coolness under fire and ability to learn - two things which are likely to help him at ANZ Stadium in Sydney tonight. Coach Steve Hansen said the door was still slightly ajar for Smith to return to Sydney if everything goes well with his wife Lee-Ann's labour, but it's a slim chance.

Fekitoa, then, must quickly get used to the idea of marking veteran centre Adam Ashley-Cooper in what will be a red-hot atmosphere in front of an expected crowd of more than 80,000. But neither Hansen nor skipper Richie McCaw have any doubts that he can succeed in his task.

"Just look at the last test we played when Conrad broke his thumb," McCaw said yesterday. "Malakai was the last guy to play at centre in the last test so him slotting in will be fine.

At the end of the day, if you let those things influence what you do in the weekend, you haven't really got the environment set up right so hopefully everyone's aware of what's going on and have prepared as such."

In other words, there are no excuses - but there is no doubt his opposite, the experienced Ashley-Cooper, will look to exploit Fekitoa's inexperience. Smith, a defensive rock for the All Blacks, has played 77 tests.

The starting role might even be beneficial for Fekitoa, however. He was guilty of rushing up slightly on defence on his debut against England at Eden Park, such was his desire to make an impact. He was more considered a fortnight later against the same opposition in Hamilton and it's important he stays connected with Ma'a Nonu against an attack which features the strike power of Israel Folau.

On the flip side is the ability of the explosive Fekitoa to ask his own questions of the Wallabies' defence.

With a world record on the line, and the chance to put one hand on the Bledisloe Cup, the stakes are high, but Hansen said the 22-year-old Fekitoa had already proven that he was capable of rising to such challenges.

"It was a pretty big challenge last time too against England. We've got every faith in him, he'll be fine. The game won't be won out there, it will be won up front.

"If we do things right up front it will be easy for him. If we don't do things right up front it will be tough for all of them."

Hansen added of the late disruption: "We've had a few in the past. This is just another one. If you expect things to happen then you plan for them. Malakai started the last test match so he'll be fine and I'm sure [replacement] Ryan Crotty is excited about getting on the plane."

- NZ Herald

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