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The exciting Tonga native set for his first All Blacks cap against Ireland

22-year-old Folau Fakatava has been learning from his mentor, Aaron Smith.

Folau Fakatava has been included on the All Blacks' bench.
Folau Fakatava has been included on the All Blacks' bench.
Image: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

TO BE FAIR to him, Folau Fakatava has been brave enough to say it to Aaron Smith’s face.

“I’m coming for you.”

He’s still some distance behind the master, who was exceptional for the All Blacks last weekend against Ireland, but the young scrum-half has major potential. 

22-year-old Fakatava is set for his New Zealand debut off the bench against Ireland this Saturday in Dunedin, his selection meaning that the Tonga native is now backing up Smith at Test level as well as in Super Rugby with the Highlanders.

The eye-catchingly mulleted Fakatava recently revealed he had been through a prolonged bout of overjoyed weeping upon learning that he had been called into the All Blacks’ squad for this summer series.

“I cried like a baby,” said Fakatava.

It might have happened sooner but for injury and a slow-moving case to ensure that World Rugby were happy Fakatava had become New Zealand-eligible through residency.

folau-fakatava-celebrates-winning Fakatava debuted for the Highlanders in 2019. Source: Photosport/Martin Hunter/INPHO

We are set to get a taste of Fakatava’s qualities off the bench on Saturday and anyone who has been watching the Highlanders over the past two seasons will be well aware that he could be a real wild card at Test level.

He has been learning the ropes from his mentor Smith on a daily basis, resisting calls for him to move to another Kiwi franchise, and now New Zealand boss Ian Foster is convinced Fakatava is ready to take the next step.

He has come a long way since first moving from Tonga to New Zealand as a 16-year-old back in 2016. It came about after the teenage Fakatava had been in Tongan underage sides that travelled over to New Zealand to play school teams, the players hoping they would be scouted and signed to move over permanently.

Hastings’ Boy High School snapped Fakatava up and he starred there as his English language improved. By 2018, he was playing senior pro rugby for Hawke’s Bay in the NPC competition, the level below Super Rugby in New Zealand.

He got his first Highlanders caps in 2019 when he was still a teenager. Much of his pay was sent back to his family in Tonga and that’s still the case. Fakatava was motivated and talented and his rise has been rapid in recent years, leading to this All Blacks chance.

folau-fakatava Fakatava at All Blacks training. Source: Photosport/Alan Lee/INPHO

Fakatava still has just five Super Rugby starts on his CV but they’re obviously tougher to come by when Smith is the man above in the pecking order. 

They are different scrum-halves with different strengths and that’s what makes the blend so interesting for the All Blacks. Remember that TJ Perenara and Brad Weber are among the scrum-halves who didn’t even make the wider squad this time around. Fakatava nudges ahead of the in-form Finlay Christie for the bench spot this weekend.

Smith’s obvious strength is his passing, which is perhaps a strange thing to say about a scrum-half. But there is no doubt that Smith is the best passer in the world and Fakatava is surely learning lots in that regard as he searches for greater consistency in his passing game.

The instinctive Fakatava brings a greater running threat and defensive physicality than Smith for the Highlanders. At 5ft 10ins, he is slightly taller than the 5ft 7ins Smith and while they both weigh around the same at somewhere between 80kg and 85kg, Fakatava is more powerful in contact.

His appetite for combat is most obvious in defence, where he is a turnover threat, as we see below against the Hurricanes. Fakatava can jackal and also dislodge the ball with explosive tackles.

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1 Folau wins a turnover.

Smith played 759 minutes for the Highlanders this year, whereas Fakatava had 404 minutes. Despite that big gap in time on the pitch, Fakatava made five turnovers to Smith’s two. Three of Fakatava’s turnovers were at the breakdown, where he is robust and aggressive.

His tackle success rate of 67% is also notably higher than Smith’s at 53%. That said, Smith has a habit of making defensive interventions at crucial moments and covering space very well.

Fakatava’s greater running threat is obvious from something as simple as tries scored. He bagged five this season, whereas Smith scored none.

Fakatava beat 12 defenders to Smith’s three, as well as offloading 18 times to Smith’s two, while his average metres per carry was up at 6.2 compared to Smith’s 3.0.

He is constantly searching for slivers of space around the fringes of the breakdown. While Smith obviously made a big linebreak last weekend, he has sometimes been criticised for not bringing enough of a running threat in the past.

2 Fakatava is a constant running threat.

Of course, as a young scrum-half, Fakatava is still honing his decision-making, kicking skills, and tactical understanding of the game. Again, being around Smith is surely only beneficial in that regard.

The Highlanders pair are said to have a very strong relationship but as Fakatava said to Smith, he is gunning for his jersey at the Highlanders and with the All Blacks. 

The Tonga native has confidently dealt with each step up in his career so far and New Zealand are backing him to make a lively impact against Ireland at the Highlanders’ Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday.

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Murray Kinsella

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