Malakai Fekitoa with the URC trophy. James Crombie/INPHO

Fekitoa's season of two halves ends on a glorious high with Munster

The Tongan centre will move on to Benetton this summer after a rollercoaster year.

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. Malakai Fekitoa knows that as well as anyone after a rollercoaster of a season with Munster. He will leave the province this summer having been a key man in their URC success.

The 31-year-old had another excellent game in Saturday’s final win over the Stormers, finishing as joint top ball-carrier for Munster alongside Gavin Coombes and Diarmuid Barron with 15 carries.

Fekitoa did damage with ball in hand, repeatedly punching over the gainline and breaking seven tackles overall in Cape Town, according to Opta’s data. He also passed fives times and threw one offload.

With Munster starving the Stormers of possession for long spells, Fekitoa only made one tackle in the entire game but it was a huge one. The Munster centre knocked-on in a monumental hit on Deon Fourie. Fourie’s clear struggle to get his breath back for some time afterward was evidence of Fekitoa’s power.

Fekitoa’s combination with Antoine Frisch has been a big strength for Munster in recent months, the pair of them dovetailing intuitively in attack especially. They’re both offloaders and were on the same page in that regard, running optimistic support lines in the expectation that the other would get their hands free.

Fekitoa has shown some of the class that helped him to be a World Cup winner with the All Blacks back in 2015 when he played twice as the Kiwis marched to trophy glory. To be fair, breaking up the Ma’a Nonu/Conrad Smith/Sonny Bill Williams combination in New Zealand’s frontline matchday squad was never going to be likely.

Fekitoa left New Zealand rugby in 2017 for a big-money switch to Toulon and then shifted to England two years later to join Wasps, where he had injury frustrations and inconsistent form at times as a result.

malakai-fekitoa-dejected-after-the-game Fekitoa struggled early on with Munster. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

With Damian de Allende leaving Munster last summer, the Irish province needed to bolster their midfield and they swooped for Fekitoa.

Initially, it looked like the signing was going to be a dud. Fekitoa’s initial performances for Munster were poor. He struggled with his handling, made some poor decisions, and generally looked like a shadow of the player he had been in the past. But the context was everything. There were several factors worth considering.

Fekitoa had arrived in Munster after his first Pacific Nations Cup campaign with Tonga, which was held in Fiji. Having transferred his international allegiance, Fekitoa understandably wanted to get off on a good foot with his native land but it meant he wasn’t as fresh as he might have been landing into Munster.

Fekitoa had also been putting a huge amount of time into raising funds to help with the rebuilding in Tonga after a devastating tsunami there in early 2022. He had to wait 12 horrible days to make contact with his own family, who still live in Tonga and who Fekitoa has helped provide for throughout his career. 

Fekitoa’s fundraising efforts amounted to an impressive $180,000 New Zealand dollars but it was time-consuming and tiring work, while the stress of his family having to rebuild their lives was obviously extremely tough.

Last May, Fekitoa and his Spanish partner, Claudia, welcomed their first child, Mara, into the world, so there was also a lot happening off the pitch when they arrived in Ireland. Not having either of their families around must have been difficult.

So it’s understandable that Fekitoa was figuring out the new balance of things. It didn’t help that he was part of a Munster team that was doing exactly the same. Their teething problems early this season were multiple and it wasn’t the ideal setting for a new player to settle in. The fact that 10 players were called into the Emerging Ireland squad soon after the start of the season was another reason for the lack of cohesion.

Fekitoa had personal responsibility, of course, and as one of the squad’s biggest earners, he knew his performances weren’t of the standard required. Munster weren’t happy either.

malakai-fekitoa-celebrates-after-the-game Fekitoa celebrates in Cape Town. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Having been a starter for the opening months of the season, Fekitoa found himself dropped by late November. He didn’t feature in five consecutive games through to January, despite being available.

Word was that Fekitoa was on a 1+1 contract [one year locked in, with the option of a second season] that included a clause around the number of games he played in the first half of the campaign. Hit a certain number and the second year of the contract was automatically triggered. So it made sense that Munster weren’t playing him. 

It was clear that things weren’t in a happy place and by early 2023, word had filtered out that Fekitoa wouldn’t be staying for a second season. Munster were looking to recruit in midfield again.

And then suddenly things clicked. Fekitoa returned to the team for the New Year’s Day win over Ulster in Belfast, teaming up with Frisch in the midfield. 

Munster went on a run of 10 wins in 14 games that culminated in last weekend’s URC final victory. Fekitoa started all but two of those games, missing the semi-final victory over Leinster due to a head injury but being swiftly reinstalled for the decider.

That was never in question given his form in the second half of the season. Fekitoa has gone from being seen by many Munster fans as a waste of money to being a popular figure who lots of them will be sad to see go. In the end, Fekitoa was among Munster’s top five players for minutes played this season.

He has carried powerfully, offloaded freely, and smashed opposition ball-carriers, showing that he has plenty still left to give in the future. Munster, meanwhile, will welcome New Zealander Alex Nankivell and Irishman Seán O’Brien into their midfield ranks next season.

Fekitoa will be part of the Tonga team that faces Ireland in the World Cup pool stages in September, so will enjoy playing against some familiar faces, and then he’ll be linking up with Italian club Benetton, so will probably have a reunion with Munster next season.

He goes with the best wishes of Munster and a URC winner’s medal.

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