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Dan Sheridan/INPHO Munster centre Malakai Fekitoa.
# Settling in
'Hopefully I get to contribute and add to the Munster legacy'
Tongan centre Malakai Fekitoa hopes to put his early struggles in Munster behind him.

LAST UPDATE | Dec 6th 2022, 8:04 AM

SO FAR, THINGS haven’t gone according to plan for Malakai Fekitoa with Munster. He knows it better than anyone. The former All Blacks centre wanted to start with a bang but has instead struggled to make an impression.

He’s been left out of the squad completely over the last two weekends and it’s unclear if he will be involved against Toulouse this Sunday as the southern province get their Champions Cup campaign underway.

Munster fans had been excited to see a World Cup winner joining last summer but so far, there haven’t been too many signs of the explosive, offloading centre who won 24 New Zealand caps before switching allegiance to his native Tonga this year.

He made his debut for the Tongans in the Pacific Nations Cup in July, then scrambled to get back to Ireland and settle in before the pre-season started at the end of that month. In truth, Fekitoa has been chasing his tail since.

“Rugby-wise it has been tough for us, myself as well,” says Fekitoa. “It has been difficult moving over in terms of getting to know the guys, I came straight off the tour as well.

“Just finding the connection between myself and players and myself and the coaches – new coaches came in, on both sides of the ball, with their brand of rugby on how they want to play, to go about the Munster way now.

“It is going to take a little while and we spoke about it. I know that the guys are still working hard, I believe it will come and you can see it slowly changing now.”

Fekitoa has been in this position before. He struggled to settle with Wasps after joining the English club in 2019 but that season ended with him helping them all the way into the Premiership final, which he unfortunately missed due to injury.

He thinks he is slowly getting there with Munster. He feels lighter on his feet and believes he is starting to make plays on both sides of the ball.

“It hasn’t connected yet, hasn’t come off in some decisions but I know this is part of rugby and as long as I have the right attitude, it will fall into place,” says Fekitoa.

new-zealand-all-blacks-malakai-fekitoa Billy Stickland / INPHO Fekitoa won the 2015 World Cup with New Zealand but now plays for Tonga. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

He arrived as a big-name and big-money signing with lots of expectation around him, so there has been frustration among some supporters at his inability to get going yet.

Fekitoa feels that pressure but says it’s something he embraces.

“It is hard at times and it is real, but I love it,” he explains.

“It’s why I have played the game for a long time now and I know that if I keep working hard and show up, it is going to turn. The next block is going to be big and hopefully I get to contribute and add to the Munster legacy.”

Among the challenges for Fekitoa has been getting used to a huge change off the pitch, and not just settling into a new home. He and his Spanish partner, Claudia, have a place in Castletroy, where RG Snyman is their neighbour.

They also have a seven-month-old daughter named Mara.

“She is probably the best thing that has happened to me in my life,” says Fekitoa. “It’s hard, especially moving to Ireland and trying to get a performance together. You try to make sure that everything is good at home.

“It is probably the best thing to go through in life – the challenges of the game, the way you criticise yourself, and then you come home and you are relaxing and just focusing on your daughter and that puts everything into perspective.

“What I am still working on is finding the balance and I know if I get that right then the performance will come.”

The reality of returning to Test rugby with Tonga has been a challenge for Fekitoa too, particularly having focused solely on club rugby with Toulon and Wasps for the previous five seasons.

He is deeply proud to be Tongan, as underlined by his hard work to raise funds for the country after it was hit by a tsunami earlier this year. He had 12 agonising days where he wasn’t able to contact with his family before finally getting the pure relief of hearing their voices and knowing for sure that they were still alive.

Fekitoa helped to raise around $180,000 New Zealand dollars in the end.

“I was fortunate with my position to be able to reach out to all the rugby family and fans and everyone came out and helped,” says Fekitoa.

simon-zebo-celebrates-with-malakai-fekitoa-after-shane-daly-scores-a-try Dan Sheridan / INPHO Malakai Fekitoa celebrates with Simon Zebo. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“My agency in New Zealand bought all the products needed from the supermarket. People offered food for free in containers and we sent tonnes of containers home, all the way to my island through the government as well and helped distribute it. I had to sort the distribution.

“Recently, it has just arrived in the small islands as well. Any equipment, food, tents – some of the houses were down and it takes months and months to rebuild even a small, little hut can take months through the government’s help.

“They have to go through villages and it will take almost a year to get to certain parts of the islands.”

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Fekitoa hails from Haʻapai and his parents, brothers, and sisters remain in Tonga. He has always sent much of his hard-earned money back home to provide for them.

So it has been special for him to play with Tonga, who are in Ireland’s pool for the World Cup next year. That said, he did initially struggle with the new focus after being such a prominent All Black in the past.

“It’s a bit of both, I’m not going to lie,” says Fekitoa. “I struggled a bit in those first two to three weeks in June. I struggled a lot emotionally as well, thinking if I had made the right decision or not.

“Then I think of my family or every kid around the island – we all dreamed to become an All Black or the Wallabies because they are all next door and you want to achieve those big things.

“Now I am hoping to inspire all those young kids out there that they can play for Tonga and still play for Munster or for Leinster, the big teams, and still be good enough. That’s what made it a lot easier.”

With the likes of Charles Piutau, Israel Folau, Vaea Fifita, George Moala, and Augustine Pulu also having converted their Test allegiance to Tonga under the new World Rugby eligibility law, there is a strong squad assembling for the World Cup.

But there’s lots of hard work still ahead, with resources remaining relatively low in Tongan rugby. The standard of food, transport, and training gear are all well below what Fekitoa and others have been used to at the top level.

malakai-fekitoa Dan Sheridan / INPHO Fekitoa hopes Munster can get back to previous heights. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Now he just needs to get motoring with Munster.

Fekitoa says he had interest from other clubs last summer but the prospect of helping the Irish province towards former heights was too hard to resist.

“Munster has been a little bit in the middle for a long time now, they haven’t won for a while. They have really good players and I wanted to come because of the players.

“I wanted to come and play with Conor Murray and I know a lot of the boys are in their 30s or just above their 30s and I know that I can contribute to them as well with my own game. That’s why I wanted to come.

“I had a lot of options with some teams that were rebuilding from fresh, from the start, and I don’t have time for that. Now I really want to come in and make an impact. But again we need to be real, it’s going to take time but you can see it’s turning.”

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