Former All Blacks hooker James Parsons says Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava may have to undergo an apprentice scheme before earning selection into Ian Foster’s squad.
Fakatava has been a standout in Super Rugby Aotearoa this season, forming a strong partnership with co-captain and fellow halfback Aaron Smith in the Dunedin franchise’s matchday squad.
Regardless of whether he has started or featured off the bench, the 21-year-old has turned heads with his dynamic running game and abrasive defending as he begins to realise his highly-touted potential.
That has led to numerous calls for the youngster to be elevated into the All Blacks squad later this year as many view him as New Zealand’s long-term successor to Smith.
However, for all that Fakatava can offer, Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that he and the All Blacks may be better off by introducing him into the national squad in a non-playing capacity via an apprenticeship programme.
Ardie Savea and Jordie Barrett toured with the All Blacks as apprentices in 2013 and 2016, respectively, with the aim of aiding their development and exposing them to the off-field requirements of a test player.
Parsons said a similar pathway could be used to slowly introduce Fakatava to international rugby, which would in turn, he added, allow other long-serving halfbacks an opportunity to break into the national squad.
“It’s a tough one because I think Brad Weber has signed on and worked so hard to put himself right back in the mix,” the two-test hooker said.
“I think guys like [fellow panellist] Bryn [Hall] – I know he won’t like me saying this – but he’s worked really hard, he’s been in and around the environment, and his counterpart, Mitch Drummond, as well.
“There’s guys that have been in and around that scene and biding their time that probably deserve an opportunity or some opportunity in and around that All Blacks squad as well.
“I do like the apprenticeship style for someone like Folau Fakatava in the sense that the growth he’s had under Aaron Smith already, and we saw that development in the [Hawke’s Bay] Magpies.
“We’re starting to really see it in the Highlanders, and I think we’ve seen the benefit it is for him as an individual and his play, so something like that, some exposure to that level in a slow burn, could be all the more beneficial for him.
“With the nature of the tests, there could be some opportunity for that in-house experience and then sending him back to some Mitre 10 Cup [NPC] or something like that. That could work really well.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 6, 2021
Parsons conceded that if Fakatava continued his rich vein of form, he could be too irresistible of a prospect for All Blacks boss Ian Foster to turn down.
However, he reaffirmed the likes of Weber, Hall and Drummond all deserved opportunities in the national squad as reward for their persistent loyalty to New Zealand rugby.
“If he keeps playing the way he’s playing, I think he’s knocking down the door for a genuine chance as well because he is playing some seriously good code.
“I don’t want his inexperience to play against him either because he’s playing good enough code to warrant selection as well, but I just don’t think we can look away from guys like Brad Weber, Bryn Hall and Mitch Drummond who have stayed around for an opportunity as well.”
Hall, who has never been capped by the All Blacks despite having played Super Rugby since 2013, admitted it was difficult for him to comment on the situation given he is in direct competition with Fakatava for a place in Foster’s squad.
In fact, the pair both started at halfback in the Highlanders’ shock 33-12 victory over the Crusaders in Christchurch last Friday, a match in which Fakatava flourished.
Nonetheless, Hall noted that those selected for the All Blacks should be picked on merit, and given the form Fakatava has shown this season, it might be too difficult to exclude him from the national set-up.
A pair of Super Rugby stars have weighed in on the debate on who should fill in for Sam Cane as All Blacks captain over the coming months. https://t.co/Rvp3IxJYd3
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 7, 2021
“I think if we’re just looking at his performances at Super Rugby level – especially in a game like it was on the weekend against a team that’s filled with a lot of All Blacks, big-game players and probably a good benchmark for test level and being in that All Black environment, playing against a team of that calibre – he played well,” Hall said.
“You want to warrant [All Blacks selection] on performances and he played really well and has been playing well off the bench as well with Nuggy [Smith] in that apprenticeship.
“If you continue to keep playing like that, then you probably warrant selection if you’re playing consistently like that every single time.
“They’ve obviously had a lot of success around their apprenticeship programme. Jordie and Ardie have been through that process as well… It’s a slow burn to be able to bring them into the environment and get them to have a look at what it’s all about.
“Then again, if you consistently keep playing at a high level, then you’ve also got to have the conversation around warranted performances of being selected.
“He’s been in tremendous form and his growth has been the best thing that I’ve seen from him, especially in a game like it was on the weekend where it was against us.
“Again, I just thought his performances continue to keep getting better and that’ll be the main thing for him moving forward.”
Fakatava is in doubt for this weekend’s clash between the Highlanders and Chiefs in Dunedin as he awaits the results of a knee scan for an injury he picked up in the win over the Crusaders.
Hall, meanwhile, is set to face off against the Hurricanes in Wellington as he and his teammates look to maintain their place at the top of the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings.
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