By Liam Napier in Cardiff
Vaea Fifita's credentials for All Blacks Rookie of the Year are compelling. Not that he would suggest as much. He is just another humble Pacific Island prodigy striving to support his family — two young sons in Wellington and many more in Tonga.
Fifita has played only six games (five tests) in his debut season for the All Blacks. But other than his debut in June, when he scored a try off the bench against Samoa at Eden Park, all have been starting. All but one, he played 80 minutes, and in all, he has captured wide acclaim.
For good reason, too.
Rieko Ioane would be odds-on for Rookie of the Year, had he not played two tests last season. But even with so many injury-enforced changes, no one else comes close to matching Fifita's impact from blindside.
Look no further than his spectacular try from a standing start against the Pumas in New Plymouth. What an effort it was from 40m out, in his maiden start no less. Five covering defenders had no chance.
"I remember Dane Coles had a charge down and TJ Perenara got the ball and I put up my hand," Fifita told the Herald on Sunday in Cardiff. "He threw a long pass to me and I looked up at the winger and tried to get on the outside of him. All of a sudden I had scored in the corner."
All of a sudden all right. It happened so fast many were left questioning how any outside back, let alone a forward, could pull it off.
"I wasn't very quick when I was young — I was too slow. All of a sudden, as I got older, I got faster. I don't really know where it comes from to be honest."
In many ways, Fifita's progression epitomises New Zealand rugby's intrinsic relationship with the Pacific Islands.
Proximity assists the flow of supreme athletes such as Fifita to New Zealand. Established rugby systems and vastly enhanced earning potential drive the lure and, in turn, help provide better lives. All levels of the New Zealand game then reap the benefits of such natural talents.
In Fifita's case, his journey started on the Tongan island of Vava'u, alongside three brothers and two sisters. Naturally he idolised the late Jonah Lomu.
"He was one player everyone looked up to."
Fifita's rugby pedigree led to the Tongan Under-18s and a trip to the promised land — a tour which featured matches against the New Zealand and Australian secondary schools and Auckland Grammar. After the final match, then first XV coach Richie Harris offered a scholarship to Tamaki College, and Fifita's pathway to the All Blacks began.
"Growing up in Tonga was a bit tough. We can't afford everything we had to work for it. Whatever we had we were fine with it. We don't cry for more. That's why I came to New Zealand; to find a better life and help my family.
"It was hard but I was excited at the same time because I knew it was a chance for me to come and try to be a professional rugby player."
Fifita's quest is familiar. Many with Pacific Island heritage — think Charles Piutau and Steven Luatua in recent times — harness an ingrained responsibility to provide for their elders and family.
The middle sibling, Fifita falls firmly in this bracket. Older brother Leva plays lock for Waikato in the Mitre 10 Cup; the rest of the family live in Tonga.
"Every month, I send money to them just to help out. My family is my motivation. Everyone supports their families but some people do more. Everyone has different reasons why they play rugby. For most of the Island boys, their reason is their family."
If contributing to those in Tonga is not enough, sons Jason, 2, and Paula, 1, in Fifita's adopted Wellington suburb of Miramar provide further inspiration.
"That's what drives me every day, my two sons. Every time I wake up in the morning, I've got to be the best I can in that day."
Mention Fifita, and former All Blacks No8 Murray Mexted must get a mention, having coaxed him to the Wellington Axemen club after spending time together at the International Rugby Academy. It was here Fifita made his name, and eventually moved through the provincial and Super Rugby grades.
Mexted still keeps in touch with the odd text.
"He's probably the one I should thank the most. He took me down to Wellington to play for his club and that's where it started."
Fifita's first full Super Rugby season, he played all 18 games alongside Michael Fatialofa. The pair were a revelation in the Hurricanes second-row as the franchise claimed their first title. He credits Richard Watt, the old school Hurricanes technical coach, with being an influential mentor.
"I like him because he is very straight with me. Every game he says what I need to do better. That's what players need from their coaches."
The Hurricanes have predominantly used the 25-year-old at lock but it seems clear his long-term future is at blindside.
"I'm happy to slot in wherever but I probably prefer six better than lock because it's more free and that's where my size is best suited."
Although he made his All Blacks debut this year, Fifita toured Europe in 2016 as an injury-replacement without any game-time. This time around, he started against the Barbarians at Twickenham; France in Paris and Scotland at Murrayfield. And he impressed in all.
"The first time I went last year, I just tried to train hard. I knew I wasn't going to play but also that my time would come. Finally, I played this year my first game against Samoa and now on the northern tour I can't believe how much I've played for the All Blacks."
With Jerome Kaino forced home after damaging knee ligaments in the opening tour match, Fifita and Liam Squire have gone head-to-head for the No6 jersey. It has been more closely contested than many envisioned, and could be a fascinating battle that rages for years.
Fifita's inherent abilities with ball in hand have been evident again on this tour but he has also tightened his game somewhat.
In Edinburgh, he made at least six hard, straight carries off the lineout, punching forward every time.
From here, his main focus is improving defence.
"Personally, I'm happy with my performances at the moment. It has been a big year."
One suspects with many more to come.