Highlanders head coach Tony Brown says the decision to demote co-captain Aaron Smith to the bench for Friday’s Super Rugby Aotearoa match against the Chiefs isn’t a case of dropping his star man, but rather a case of promoting Folau Fakatava.
Fakatava, the promising young halfback out of Hawke’s Bay, has been named to start for the Highlanders for the first time since joining the franchise as a 19-year-old two years ago.
In doing so, he takes the place of Smith, who will start from the reserves bench as Brown aims to give Fakatava extensive game time to help realise his highly-touted potential.
“It’s a good opportunity for Folau,” Brown said. “He’s had a good pre-season, did well off the bench last Friday night, so it’s his opportunity to see what he can do as a starting No. 9, and we’ll see what Aaron can do off the bench.
“Aaron’s obviously the world’s best halfback, but we wanted to always rotate those two guys in the first two games, so it’s a massive opportunity for Folau.”
The decision to swap Smith’s and Fakatava’s match day roles comes a day after it was announced the former signed a two-year contract extension with New Zealand Rugby [NZR] that will see him through to the 2023 World Cup.
Speaking to media on Tuesday in the wake of that announcement, Smith said his workload will need to be managed between now and that World Cup if he is to feature at the tournament in France.
The 32-year-old has been used heavily by the Highlanders throughout his career and is just two games away from eclipsing Ben Smith’s record for most Highlanders appearances of 153 matches.
During that time, the livewire halfback started in most of the games he played and stayed on the park for the majority for each of those matches.
Smith’s presence was particularly felt in last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, where he started in every match and was a contender for the tournament’s MVP award.
That’s how influential he can be for the Highlanders, but the 97-test veteran said he can’t be so heavily depended on in Super Rugby if he is to make the cut for the next World Cup.
“I can’t do what I did in Super Rugby Aotearoa last year and play 78 minutes every week, throwing my body into hell and hoping I’m going to get there. That is just not fathomable. At the end of Aotearoa last year, I was a broken man,” Smith said.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 3, 2021
That’s partly the reason why Fakatava has been handed starting duties in Hamilton this week. The other side of the equation is that the Tongan-born starlet needs game time if he is to stick around with the Highlanders beyond this year.
While the announcement of Smith’s re-signing with NZR is a vital coup for the All Blacks and Highlanders, the domino effect of that acquisition is that Fakatava may be forced to look elsewhere for playing time.
Widely regarded as the best up-and-coming halfback in the country, Fakatava is off-contract with the Highlanders this year and is in hot demand throughout New Zealand, as Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark confirmed to Stuff on Tuesday.
Losing Fakatava to a rival club would be as significant for the Highlanders as Smith’s re-commitment to the franchise, but for polar opposite reasons.
That led Brown to indicate through pre-season that the youngster is primed for a more prominent role this year.
“Folau had a great Mitre 10 Cup and he’s probably opened the door for himself just by the way he’s performed,” Brown said ahead of the Highlanders’ first pre-season match against the Crusaders in Temuka last month.
“We’ve got the best halfback in the world in Aaron Smith and Folau can offer something a little bit different to Aaron, so hopefully he continues with that same form and then he can be a real impact option for us off the bench.
“Then when we do need to give Aaron a bit of a break, Folau can go out there and start a game of rugby without too much of a disruption to the team.”
With Smith eager to preserve himself for the upcoming World Cup, it seems now is the right time to give him that break Brown mentioned three weeks ago and open the proverbial door to Fakatava.
Don’t expect the Chiefs match to be the only time this year the duo will chop and change roles within the match day side as the Highlanders need to sell Fakatava, who Clark described to Stuff as a “10-year player” for the club, a vision to keep him on board.
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper and ex-All Blacks skipper Kieran Read both want to see Japan play more international tests.https://t.co/aqjLhYqBfF
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 3, 2021
Fakatava told the New Zealand Herald ahead of last year’s Moana Pasifika clash against the Maori All Blacks that he needs game time at Super Rugby level if he is to realise his lofty potential.
Given Smith isn’t moving until after 2023, Fakatava may decide his Super Rugby future lies elsewhere, but the Highlanders’ decision to start him this week is an indication he is a valued squad member who is now in a position to demand starting honours.
That could prove crucial in their quest to retain Fakatava, who will be Smith’s successor beyond 2023 should he decide to stay in Dunedin in the years ahead.
It’s at Forsyth Barr Stadium where he could come to form a lethal halves partnership with Josh Ioane, who has been named to start at first-five against the Chiefs after working well with Fakatava from the bench in last week’s 26-13 defeat to the Crusaders.
Like Fakatava, Ioane has the potential to become a franchise player for the Highlanders, and the 25-year-old playmaker said he is excited to start alongside the youngster at FMG Stadium Waikato.
“Really happy for Folau. When he first came into the environment, everyone saw how good of a player he was. I feel like everyone in New Zealand is just starting to see what we saw years ago,” Ioane told media on Friday.
“He’s definitely more confident coming into this year and I’m excited to play with him.”
Brown said Ioane’s inclusion in this week’s team, which has pushed last week’s No. 10 Mitch Hunt to fullback at the cost of new recruit Solomon Alaimalo, is well-deserved after a delayed beginning to the campaign.
“Josh was a late starter in our pre-season. Now he’s had two 40-minute performances, so we feel as though it’s time for him to start again and see what he can do for the 80 minutes.”
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Highlanders team to face the Chiefs in Hamilton
1. Daniel Lienert-Brown
2. Ash Dixon (co-c)
3. Siate Tokolahi
4. Josh Dickson
5. Jack Regan
6. Shannon Frizell
7. Billy Harmon
8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
9. Folau Fakatava
10. Josh Ioane
11. Jona Nareki
12. Patelesio Tomkinson
13. Ngatungane Punivai
14. Connor Garden-Bachop
15. Mitch Hunt
16. Liam Coltman
17. Josh Hohneck
18. Jeff Thwaites
19. Manaaki Selby-Rickit
20. Liam Squire
21. Aaron Smith (co-c)
22. Solomon Alaimalo
23. Hugh Renton
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