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'Becoming an international-level player': Fainga'anuku backed for big leagues

By Tom Vinicombe
Leicester Fainga'anuku. (Photo by Aaron Gillions/Photosport)

With nine All Blacks to select from in the backline, it wouldn’t have come as a major surprise if the incredibly talented but less experienced Leicester Fainga’anuku found himself twiddling his thumbs on the sidelines more often than not for the Crusaders this season.

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The opposite has been true, however, with the big utility back earning starts in four of the Crusaders’ five matches this year, only getting a rest against Moana Pasifika.

Some might suggest that’s in part due to the ongoing absence of Jack Goodhue, who is still on the mend after rupturing his ACL during last year’s competition, coupled with the continual disruption caused by Covid.

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The truth, however, is that whether he’s an All Black or not, Fainga’anuku has been one of the Crusaders’ most impressive and consistent performers since his breakthrough season in 2020. Even with a full contingent of players to pick from, it will be hard to see the 22-year-old missing out on a spot in the run-on team, let alone the matchday squad.

Fainga’anuku was named at centre for last weekend’s win over the Chiefs – his first opportunity in the role this year after spending the bulk of his minutes on the wing – and despite the return of Braydon Ennor to the fold this week, Fainga’anuku has held down his spot for Friday night’s clash with the Highlanders.

“Leicester’s in hot form, he has been for the last two or three years,” coach Scott Robertson said of his young wrecking ball.

“He’s a point of difference for us: brings a power game but he’s grown a lot of other parts of his game. He can set himself up and other players pre- and post-contact so he’s been good.”

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When asked whether centre could be Fainga’anuku’s permanent spot moving forward, Robertson was coy, suggesting that he would be a standout wherever he’s selected.

“Every time he’s played there on the wing or centre, he’s performed for us,” Robertson said. “We believe he’s becoming an international-level player, just the way he’s been consistent.

“And to be an All Black, you’ve gotta play in a couple of positions and then they choose which one’s the best one.”

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With the All Blacks utilising eight midfielders and wingers throughout last year’s campaign, and a much trimmer squad anticipated for 2022, Fainga’anuku still has a big job ahead of him to prove he’s an international player in waiting.

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Upon Goodhue’s return, Robertson will no doubt spend time rotating his squad in order to keep everyone fresh ahead of the finals series at the end of the campaign – but that’s not necessarily going to work against Fainga’anuku, with ample Crusaders players earning test call-ups in recent times despite limited opportunities at Super Rugby level. Strong performances throughout the sudden death matches will perhaps be the catalyst needed for young players to thrust their names into the lights and if Fainga’anuku is fit and fresh, he’ll be incredibly difficult to stop.

The Crusaders will take on the Highlanders at Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch on Friday evening, with the Crusaders suffering just one defeat so far this season and the Highlanders wallowing at the bottom of the Super Rugby Pacific table.

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