Fakatava says dad 'nearly broke TV' celebrating match-winning try

Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava, fresh from his late game-winning heroics against the Reds at the weekend, has confirmed today that he has re-signed with the franchise until 2025 and that he has turned down approaches from the Crusaders and Hurricanes

The 23-year-old timed his late intervention at Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium to perfection; likewise his announcement that he will remain loyal to the franchise that took a chance on him five years ago.

Not only did his try keep the Highlanders in contention for the Super Rugby Pacific playoffs, it was the ideal send-off for his teammate and role model Aaron Smith, who was playing his final home match.

In the final minute and with the Highlanders trailing the Reds 30-28, a run by outside back Scott Gregory gave the home side an attacking ruck, and Fakatava, aware the Queenslanders were thin defensively on the blindside, went on a typically sniping run to the line with loose forward Marino Mikaele-Tu’u outside him in support. The try was converted from the sideline for a 35-30 victory.

And while Fakatava’s announcement that he is staying put wasn’t a total surprise given Smith’s impending move to Japan next year, the Tonga-born player revealed he was tempted to sign with the Crusaders three years ago.

“In 2020 the Crusaders and 'Canes wanted to sign me," he said. "I have to be honest - I was close to signing with the Crusaders, just because I love how they play and their forward pack would have helped my game a lot through dominating the collisions.

“[But] I had it in the back of my head too that the ‘Landers had given me this opportunity that no one else had.

“I go back to the Mitre 10 Cup [with Hawke’s Bay] and Webby [Brad Weber] was playing most of the games. I didn’t play much and I was surprised the ‘Landers wanted me to come here. They gave me the opportunities to impress and show what I can do at this level of rugby. My dad told me the same.”

Fakatava, who made his All Blacks debut off the bench against Ireland last year and has two Test caps, also spoke about how important his family is.

Arriving in New Zealand to attend Hastings Boys' High School, Fakatava’s ability on the rugby field soon shone through but while making the All Blacks will always remain a big goal, providing for his family in Tonga is a bigger one.

“I miss my mum and my dad. I wish I could go home every two weeks.

“My first goal wasn’t to be an All Black, it was to provide for my family a better life and I’m doing that. The opportunity presented itself and I took it and I’m really making them proud. I miss them a lot – hopefully I’ll see them after the season and give them a warm hug.”

In summarising his dramatic try today, Fakatava said it simply was a case of trusting his instincts.

“On my way to the ruck I saw I think it was their No.7 on his way to the ruck so I thought if I looked to the left he’ll keep going, so there was just one guy standing there. Quick maths, two on one, hopefully we’ll score - it just happened like that.”

He said of Smith’s reaction afterwards: “He was so proud. We didn’t know what to say to each other - we were just hugging. I told him it was for him and it was a team try.”

Fakatava said his dad, watching the match at his brother’s house in Australia, “nearly broke the TV” as he celebrated the try.

Highlanders assistant coach Richard Whiffin said of Fakatava: “He’s instinctive, the key thing we’ve been working on around him is actually to wait for that space to open up because he’ll feel it.

“He doesn’t have to go looking for it. You only have to give him half a gap and he’s quick enough and he’s got the ability with his show and go and things to be able to beat someone.

“It’s his time to take that baton on and I think you’ll see some real growth in his game over the next few years.”

Fakatava added that Smith, 34, who has signed a long-term deal with the Toyota club (Beauden Barrett has signed a shorter one at the same club), should still be playing for a while yet.

"He’s still got it. I told him 'if you’re 40 you could still play', because he’s that good and he looks after his body as well. He’s playing like he’s 21."