Just days after receiving an All Blacks call, Malakai Fekitoa can build on his reputation against the Hurricanes in Wellington on Friday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
The 22-year-old hard-running centre has been something of a revelation for the Highlanders this season, breaking tackles, beating defenders and causing all sorts of problems for opposition defenders.
Friday's battle with All Blacks-incumbent Conrad Smith is one that is bound to get the blood pumping, and one that Steve Hansen will be keeping a close eye on. Fekitoa may not be the finished article, as shown by his high number of handling errors, but he sure is an exciting talent.
The Highlanders survived a late onslaught to secure a 35-31 victory when these two met earlier this season. Last week's success over the Lions followed a similar path, with the Highlanders going out to a 23-0 lead before hanging on at the death to claim the narrowest of wins.
The Hurricanes suffered a big blow earlier this week when All Blacks hooker Dane Coles was ruled out due to a back injury. Motu Matu'u will take his place in the side, while flank Jack Lam and prop Jeffrey Toomoga-Allen are the other changes among the forwards. In the only backline change, the ever-reliable Tim Bateman replaces Alapati Leiua at No 12, with the latter dropping to the bench.
The Highlanders, meanwhile, have made five changes as the gruelling Super Rugby competition begins to take its toll. Chris King will miss out through suspension, with Kane Hames taking his place in the front row. Beside him, Liam Coltman starts at hooker with Ged Robinson on the bench. Jarrad Hoeata returns to the starting line-up along with John Hardie, who replaces Shane Christie on the flank. Hayden Parker will continue to deputise for Lima Sopoaga at flyhalf, while Shaun Treeby starts ahead of Phil Burleigh at inside centre.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Hurricanes 12, Highlanders 10
In Wellington: Hurricanes 6, Highlanders 4
FEKITOA'S STATS THAT MATTER
17 – The number of handling errors he has made this season (Rank 4)
31 – The number of defenders he has beaten (Rank 5)
5 – The number of tries he has scored (Rank 9)
Source: Vodacom Stats App
Hurricanes – 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Motu Matu'u, 1 Ben Franks.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Reggie Goodes, 19 Blade Thomson, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Brad Shields, 22 Chris Smylie, 23 Alapati Leiua.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Jason Emery, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Aki Seuli, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka 22 Trent Renata, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images