Fekitoa only getting better

Slowly but surely Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa appears to be returning to form

Under pressure to perform ahead of the All Blacks and British and Irish Lions series in winter, Fekitoa scored two tries in his team's 51-12 romp against the Melbourne Rebels in Dunedin on Friday night. 

The 24-year-old wasn't perfect - there were still a couple of frustrating handling errors - but there were enough signs for Coach Tony Brown to believe he's on the right track. 

"I think he was a little bit underdone in those first few games," Brown said. "But all the All Blacks were. It's hard for the All Blacks to come back and play good footy straight away.

"I think you'll see Malakai Fekitoa just get better and better each week. It was great for him to score those two tries because he's one guy that puts in a hell of a lot of work during the week to be better."

Fekitoa scored the game's first try in the 13th minute, after taking a Richard Buckman offload and trampling Rebels winger Tom English on his way to the line. Late in the second half, he snaffled an intercept and dashed 40m to the line.

Given his rough form last year, which ended with him battling for game time in the black jersey during the end-of-year-tour, it was a breath of fresh air to see him running with a full head of steam. 

He was at his usual best defensively, making six tackles, including a scrambling try-saver on Rebels fullback Jack Debreczeni early in the second half.

"That's the sort of impact he can have in the game," Brown said. "He's probably the best defensive centre in New Zealand at the moment. You can't put a measure on that kind of effort."

With 23 caps for the All Blacks to his name, Fekitoa is off-contract at the end of the season and admitted in February overseas clubs had been sniffing around in a bid to secure his signature. 

The 39-point win in halfback Aaron Smith's 100th game surpassed the Highlanders' previous biggest win - 31 points in 2012 - against the Rebels, and the 51 points also marked the most they'd scored against the winless team from Melbourne. 

Match Stats — Team Stats


However, given how poor the Rebels were - at times it appeared as if they'd rather have been anywhere on earth but Dunedin - any excitement over Fekitoa and the Highlanders should perhaps be tempered.

While the win improved the Highlanders to 3-3, the real test will be against the Blues in Dunedin next Saturday night in their final match before an eighth round bye.

"It was good to score those tries and put away one of the weakest teams in the competition," Brown said. 

"We've got a massive challenge next week against the Blues. I'd say they're going to be at least three times as good as the Rebels.

"But to get 50 points and win with a bonus point is just what we needed at this stage in our season." 

Brown is hopeful his side will have Ben Smith available for the match. He was a late scratching against the Rebels after he tweaked his hamstring at training on Thursday. 

"We were hoping he would wake up and be OK. But he just had a bit of weakness there and we didn't want to risk him," Brown said.

"Hamstrings are a funny one, so we just need to see how he . . . progresses over the next few days."


Highlanders: 51 (Malakai Fekitoa 2, Luke Whitelock, Richard Buckman, Gareth Evans tries; Marty Banks 3 pen, 5 con, Fletcher Smith con)  

Rebels: 12 (Tom English, Reece Hodge; Hodge con)


Photo: PHOTOSPORT (Malakai Fekitoa races away from the Rebels' Reece Hodge on Friday).