Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday.

How Fekitoa defied the odds to become an All Blacks hero

Rugby heart-throb Malakai Fekitoa tonight lines up for his 17th test in the famous All Blacks jersey.

But the big-time occasion is a world away from when the midfielder was told as a youngster: "You'll never make it".

Fekitoa will take the field against the Wallabies at Wellington's Westpac Stadium in the battle for the Bledisloe Cup.

And on game day, the 24-year-old opened up on how his rising rugby career is built on the back of a steely motivation to prove his critics wrong.

Doubters insisted he didn't have the presence to play centre - believing he would break the line instead of passing on.

And schoolyard bullies back in Tonga still taunt him about his childhood limp to this day. As a kid Fekitoa could not walk for a year after a freak accident in which a large door fell from a village hall and crushed him, dislocating his hip.

His mother warned him off ever playing rugby. And his father, who died after a car crash, never lived to see his son star as a professional sportsman.

Fekitoa's story features in a new advertising campaign launched today by Rebel Sport and is told by top sporting motivational speaker Eric Thomas.

"Even when you do well, there are always people that doubt you and want you to fail," Fekitoa said. "They are the reason I push myself so hard. I wanted to prove those people wrong.

"From a young age people said I wasn't good enough to play in New Zealand. My "Why" was to make my family proud and to make a better life for all of us. I knew I had something in me, I just needed to find a way to push it."

This single-minded motivation energising an athlete to defy odds and perform at the highest levels of their sport is familiar to many athletes.

Rugby legend Michael Jones believes this is one of the main springboards for young talent who make the transition from community to professional sport.

"It takes huge motivation and self-belief for a young Pacific islander to move to NZ alone," he said. "Leaving behind his support structures ... his family, kaaiga, village, church, and community in the islands ... for NZ, even if there is a well-integrated and established Pasifika community here.

"It is especially difficult for those forwhom English is a second language, and even more so if they have had setbacks in life already."

Highlanders powerhouse Malakai's journey from humble Tongan roots in a village setting to overcoming adversary and even a physical disability to becoming a rugby superstar is a powerful inspiration for generations of Pacific island and athletes the world over, Jones added.

Rebel Sport marketing manager, Tanya Laurence, said telling the story of Fekitoa's life was a big responsibility.

"We wanted to ensure that we portrayed it in the most authentic way," she said. "Malakai trusted us with his story, in the hope that it will inspire others to get up, prove everyone wrong and live up to their true potential."

Malakai's story is the first of a series covering a range of athletes across different codes, which will be released by Rebel Sport over the next 12 months.

- NZ Herald

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