'I think everyone's seen what Folau can do'
While the Highlanders will have to cope without Aaron Smith in the run-on side this weekend, the Hurricanes won’t exactly be relieved at facing off with Smith’s replacement in the No 9 jersey, All Black-in-waiting Folau Fakatava.
Smith has started the Highlanders’ opening two matches of the season, clocking up 56 minutes against the Chiefs and 49 minutes against the Crusaders, and will come off the bench in Wellington this weekend. Although the 33-year-old endured a slightly less torrid test season than some of his NZ teammates in 2021 due to sitting out much of the Rugby Championship, his game-time has still required managing at this early stage of the Super Rugby Pacific season.
The flip-side, of course, is that Fakatava is able to get some more minutes on the paddock after spending the bulk of last season sidelined with an ACL injury. With many believing Fakatava to have an incredibly high ceiling and be more than capable of making a splash in the test arena, he’ll need to showcase to the national selectors that last year’s injury hasn’t delayed his development.
“The first part of [the swap] is just managing Aaron’s workload,” Highlanders head coach Tony Brown said after naming his side to take on the Hurricanes. “We’ve got a duty to do there.
“And then the second part is giving Folau the opportunity to push his case at the next level around being good enough to make the All Blacks.”
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Fakatava boasts a wicked side-step, strength that defies his size and a quick pass, whichever direction he’s sending the ball. An ACL tear is a big injury to recover from, however, and Fakatava is still working his way back into form after being unavailable since April of last season.
In Fakatava’s first competitive game back on the field, against the Chiefs in Round 1, the 22-year-old still looked capable of breaking a game open but was notably slower off the mark and at one point was out-paced by Chiefs hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho in a footrace to the ball.
That’s unlikely to be a concern for the Highlanders, however, with first five and co-captain Mitch Hunt suggesting it was important for his teammates to run smart support lines off the nuggety halfback to make the most of his incisiveness around the breakdown.
“I think everyone’s seen what Folau can do and his potential over the last couple of years,” Hunt said. “He’s not too much taller than me but he’s bloody solid in there at halfback. He’s a great runner and he’s also great defensively.
“We’ve gotta stick with him, he can make a break or make a play out of anything. While Aaron’s great in all aspects, we’ve just gotta be able to be reactive to Folau sometimes because he can make something out of anything. We’ve gotta stay on him there and feed off him really.”
Fakatava’s promotion is one of just three changes to the Highlanders’ starting line-up for this Saturday’s clash, with the experienced Bryn Evans coming in for Manaaki Selby-Rickit in the second row and Waikato wing Liam Coombes-Fabling getting the nod on the left wing in the place of the injured Josh Timu.
Saturday’s match kicks off at 7:05pm NZT from Sky Stadium in Wellington.
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