The 22-year-old winger was drafted into Aaron Mauger’s squad last week as an injury replacement for youngster Connor Garden-Bachop, who will miss the entirety of next season after undergoing surgery to fix a troublesome back injury.
Fainga’anuku’s rise into the Dunedin-based franchise came after an impressive Mitre 10 Cup campaign with his native Tasman side, which went on an undefeated run to the Premiership title this year.
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Fainga’anuku’s omission from Scott Robertson’s squad forced him to look at playing options abroad, and he surprised many by taking up an offer to move to France, where he joined Perpignan on a short-term deal for the 2018-19 European domestic campaign.
He returned to New Zealand this year, but despite his improved displays in the Mitre 10 Cup, another full-time Super Rugby contract went begging upon the announcements of next year’s squads last month.
That was until Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark called Fainga’anuku with an offer to replace Garden-Bachop, but with a return to France on the table – albeit in the Pro D2 following Perpignan’s relegation from the Top 14 last season – it was something the former New Zealand U20 representative took some time to consider.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 16, 2019
“It was a pretty tough decision [to stay in New Zealand],” he told Stuff. “I really enjoyed France. I really loved not just France but Europe.
“I enjoyed my time overseas. I learnt so much off the field. It’s just a good life experience.
“After the New Zealand U20s if you don’t get picked up [by Super Rugby teams] there is an in between.
“I felt like a good enough player to just be playing. I didn’t want to sit around. Rugby’s just a game for me. I just love playing it and meeting new people, I just wanted to play.”
However, Fainga’anuku revealed that the presence of Tony Brown in the Highlanders’ coaching ranks in 2020 was enough to persuade him to relocate to Dunedin rather than move back to Europe.
“Tony Brown is a legend,” he said. “When the opportunity came up I had a think about it but that motivated me, just to sponge up from him.”
After having taken charge of the Highlanders as both an assistant and head coach between 2014 and 2017, Brown established his coaching credentials on the global stage at the World Cup this year after helping Jamie Joseph take Japan to their maiden quarter-final appearance in compelling fashion.
Brown was credited with formulating the Brave Blossoms’ scintillating attacking play and precise backline moves which captivated onlookers not just within Japan, but across the world.
Fainga’anuku was one of many admirers of Brown’s coaching exploits, and the 44-year-old’s return to Forsyth Barr Stadium on a three-year deal proved to be the clincher in securing the speedster’s services ahead of the 2020 Super Rugby season.
“He’s sort of like a guru,” Fainga’anuku said to Stuff of Brown. “A few of the boys kick with their dominant foot and struggle with their other foot.
“But we had one kicking session and most of the boys now feel comfortable kicking off their least dominant foot. I’m not sure how he does it.
“I think he just puts so much behind making people better that it works.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 16, 2019
After shedding eight kilos from his 115kg frame since linking up with his new teammates over pre-season, the explosive Fainga’anuku is eyeing up a match against his younger brother, Leicester, in the Highlanders’ pre-season fixture against the Crusaders in Wanaka on January 24.
After having grown up in the Crusaders’ region before being axed by the back-to-back-to-back reigning Super Rugby champions, there should be no lack of motivation for Fainga’anuku as he prepares to face his former side, although he bears no grudges.
“I didn’t really get an opportunity but I felt like I learnt a lot,” he said.
“When the Highlanders opportunity came up I looked as it as fresh start. It’s been a bit of a ride for me in my career.”
The Highlanders will then get their regular season underway against the Sharks at Forsyth Barr Stadium on February 7.
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