He doesn't know how it happened or why, but Malakai Fekitoa lost his love of rugby in the middle of the year.

Maybe he put too much pressure on himself. He thinks it's a possible explanation. With Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith no longer there, he saw his chance to stake his claim to a regular place in the All Blacks midfield. He maybe even made the mistake of thinking the centre role was already his and didn't, mentally at least, feel the need to keep proving himself.

And maybe he got caught up in the world of social media, taking to heart the views and thoughts of others who don't know him and yet so easily cast judgement.

In truth, all of those things had an impact on his mental wellbeing around June and July and left him in such a poor state the All Blacks decided he needed time off and wasn't involved in the away tests against Argentina and South Africa.

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"It was tough looking back," he says ahead of tomorrow morning's (NZT) test with Italy. "I felt that I had a great season for the Highlanders before June and that everything had gone my way and that the jersey [All Blacks No 13] was mine. Physically, I had never been in better shape my whole career. I had trained so well and I was performing well [for the Highlanders]. I was on the right track.

"But it wasn't until I played that I realised I wasn't even close to getting it. That was when everything went down. I made a lot of mistakes in the first test and then everyone gives you a hard time when you don't perform and you keep going down. So you are stuck there, but I was just hoping in those times I would get out of it. I was thinking too much I guess and I wasn't focused as much off the field and it obviously showed in how I played [against Wales in June].

"I was thinking about things a lot more than I used to. I felt flat and I guess I wasn't enjoying my rugby."

A prolific user of social media, Fekitoa learned the hard way during that period of the perils of that faceless world. As much as it's a place for players to connect with those who have a genuine supportive interest in their respective careers, it's also a lawless state where critics can be abusive without fear of sanction.

It's a place where people can write what they would never say in person and it was as much the surprise of that as the disappointment that sent Fekitoa into deeper despair.

"The way I use social media is to help others who were in my shoes and to do it daily so they can see what I am doing now and see what I am up to," he says.

"Hopefully it will help them. I try to send a message to help. But it is hard because some people will respond in a different way when I try to send a positive message they don't agree [with]. I try to not let it get into my head.

"But we are all human and it gets to me sometimes. I am still young and I try not to read it but lately I have come to feel like I am bigger than that. I have played a lot more and people don't know what I struggle with and what I dealt with and how much I have sacrificed to get there."

The last part is the important part. Fekitoa posted a message on Instagram earlier this year about his struggles with anger. It was a brave admission, even in today's world when mental health is better understood.

Anton Lienert-Brown and Malakai Fekitoa. Photo / Photosport
Anton Lienert-Brown and Malakai Fekitoa. Photo / Photosport

Fekitoa feels he's in a better place now and is hopeful of proving his form in Rome tomorrow morning. He's not desperate to prove it because he knows putting that sort of expectation on himself is counter-productive. And arguably, that's been at the core of his journey of self-discovery this season.

He's come to understand he needn't think through every minute detail of his game. He doesn't need to cripple himself with analysis before he does anything on the field. Instead, he needs to trust in what earned him his selection. That is, get the ball in his hands and run with it, play with no hesitation or indecision.

An unrestricted, unfettered Fekitoa is a powerful proposition - the world saw that in 2014 when he was at his best and the All Blacks want that player back.

"Sometimes rugby is a bit too much," he says. "Sometimes when things go wrong I work too hard on that and the coaches [have] told me to relax and just play footy and do what I do best.

"I wasn't that excited for a wee while until I had that break against Argentina and South Africa and I realised how much I missed playing and how much I need to improve and get better.

"That week against Australia [at Eden Park] I felt different. I was a different person. I was excited and I brought more energy to the game when I got on and I felt I had re-started my season again from that game and I felt like that last week [against Ireland].

"In that week against Australia, I was excited to get up in the morning again. When I had the ball, I felt fast and that I had energy and I think I'm back on track every day. I am excited to train and I think it comes down to just playing footy.

"I try to stay calm now a lot more and tell myself that I have played a lot of games; do my role and that will help the team. I feel like I am out of that hole and I am ready to play again."