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Big year ahead: Folau Fakatava not trying to be 'the next Aaron Smith’

By Finn Morton
The master and his apprentice - Folau Fakatava and Aaron Smith in Highlanders colours. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images).

Folau Fakatava has some big shoes to fill in 2024. With All Blacks great Aaron Smith leaving the Highlanders at the end of last season, Fakatava is primed for a big year ahead.

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Fakatava, who has played a couple of Test matches for New Zealand, has long been touted as the successor to Smith’s throne in the Highlanders’ No. 9 jersey.

The 24-year-old started at halfback in pre-season clashes against Moana Pasifika and the Hurricanes, and Fakatava is universally expected to continue in that role this season.

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But don’t expect him to be an Aaron Smith clone. As legendary as Smith was for both club and country, Fakatava is a special, unique and skilful player in his own right.

As captain Billy Harmon told reporters at the Super Rugby Pacific season launch on Wednesday, the Highlanders want their new star scrum-half to go out there and “show what he’s good at.”

“He’s been going,” Harmon told reporters in Auckland. “He’s been playing really well, training really well.

“I think it’s really clear that he’s not trying to be the next Aaron Smith. They’re two completely different people, different styles of play.

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“Our attack coach, Kenny (Lynn), he knows that and he’s going to set up a game that can help Folau be at his best and show what he’s good at.”

The Highlanders have a point to prove this season. Even without the likes of Smith and Shannon Frizellamong the 16 players who left in 2023 – they’ve still got a debt to settle.

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When the Super Rugby Pacific playoffs got underway last time out, the Highlanders were the only New Zealand team not to make the cut. They missed out on points differential to the Queensland Reds.

But their pre-season 52-19 demolition of the Hurricanes last weekend is sure to give them a lift ahead of the new campaign in a competition that “means everything” in New Zealand.

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“It means everything. It’s obviously a slightly changed version but it’s a competition we all grew up watching,” Harmon said.

“It’s massive for New Zealand rugby, how we grow our top team. I think it’s everything around rugby.”

As confirmed by the Highlanders recently, Billy Harmon will captain the side again in 2024 while playmaker Sam Gilbert will step up as the team’s new vice-captain.

All Black Ethan de Groot, Sean Withy, Jona Nareki and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens round out the leadership group.

“Billy leads by his actions – especially on the field. He’s very measured around his delivery of messages and he’s really calm, which is hugely important,” head coach Clarke Dermody said in a statement.

“He’s one of our best players on the field and well respected by the team from what he did last year, and I know he’s looking forward to leading the team again.

“Sam coming in as vice-captain is new for us,” He added. ‘Sam’s got a good rugby brain and is involved heavily around our strategy.

“They (Billy and Sam) work well together and are well aligned already.

“The leadership group has a good spread of experience and youth and we’ve also got the opportunity to grow our younger leaders and bring them into the group when we see fit.”

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3 Comments
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Sumkunn Tsadmiova 123 days ago

“I think it’s really clear that he’s not trying to be the next Aaron Smith…..”

Well, let’s hope so. Going to the toilet cubicle at the airport by himself would certainly be a good start……

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