Having lost four international loose forwards from last year, 2020 was always shaping up as a massive challenge for the Highlanders. When push came to shove, however, the team’s young loosies stepped up – none more so than Hawke’s Bay No 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u.

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Gone from the 2019 side that scraped into the quarterfinals were Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock, Jackson Hemopo and Elliot Dixon. Five rounds into the season, captain James Lentjes was also struck from the roster due to a cruel leg injury.

Having boasted one of the most talented and experienced loose forward trios in recent years, the Highlanders were suddenly relying on men with just a handful of Super Rugby caps – plus reinvigorated openside flanker Dillon Hunt and powerhouse Shannon Frizell.

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Mikaele-Tu’u was perhaps the surprising star performer, however. Having debuted for the Highlanders in 2018 but managing just seven appearances over the past two seasons, there were few across the country who really knew what to expect from the 23-year-old. Very quickly, though, people started to take notice of the former Hastings Boy’s High School student.

“With the likes of Luke Whitelock and Liam Squire, I think the Highlanders had the best loose forwards, if not in the world, definitely in the country,” Mikaele-Tu’u told RugbyPass.

“With all those boys leaving, obviously there were spots to fill this year. I was still fighting for positions with the likes of Teariki Ben-Nicholas, who’s coming through the ranks, but off a pretty good pre-season and whatnot, I was given the early starts.”

It’s fair to say that Mikaele-Tu’u made the most of his opportunities and within weeks of the competition kicking off, there were rustlings that the Hawke’s Bay loose forward could be on the track to national selection – but that had never been the expectations. Mikaele-Tu’u was just trying to not let his teammates down.

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“I was really nervous going into that first game. It was just the pressure of thinking, ‘Man, if I don’t play well then I’m going to lose all the ground I’ve made and have to try grind my way back to a position in the team.’

“Over time, the more games you’ve played, it just becomes more normal and more comfortable and then, by the middle of the season, you’re just running out there and you know it’s just another game.”

Come the end of Super Rugby Aoteroa, Mikele-Tu’u sat inside the competition’s top ten performers for carries, metres gained and clean breaks, while he topped the charts in offloads.

That was possible thanks to an expertly devised game plan that allowed the big No 8 to make the most of his size and skill.

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“It was really just part of how Brownie [assistant Tony Brown] wanted the boys to play. The game plan that we ran with gave me opportunities out wide and gave me the ball to play against some of the smaller guys on the field.

“Every time I got the ball, I ended up running at one of the smaller guys and that usually worked out well for me. I don’t think I would be doing any good running at the tight five.”

Halfback Aaron Smith – comfortably the most experienced player in the side, with 150 Highlanders matches under his belt – also worked well with Mikaele-Tu’u to find opportunities to exploit on the park.

“Aaron Smith was unreal for me, as a young loose forward; he would always give you little pointers during the game. He’d say things like, ‘You can attack this hole. I don’t think they’ll tackle you, and then I’ll run off you.’ Little things like that, it gives you a lot of confidence.”

Mikaele-Tu’u was quick to heap praise on his fellow loosies, Frizell and Hunt. The trio started all eight of the Highlanders’ Aotearoa matches together.

“We had a pretty good connection. Dillon Hunt had a hell of a season, obviously, and Shannon Frizell was putting in pretty stand-up performances week-in and week-out.

“I feel like we really played a big part in everyone’s game which made it easier for our own jobs. Heading into the game week, we would get together, jot down what we needed to do to perform and get the advantage over the other loose forwards that we were coming up against.

“It was really good having Dillon out there, he was a bit of a leader amongst us loose forwards. Me and Shannon, we don’t really like to talk much, so he really took the wheel on that one. But it was really good, I really enjoyed the season and obviously we came away with some pretty good performances.”

At the end of the day, however, no matter how good the players are around you and how tactically astute the game plan is, it still takes an incredibly special talent to have your name bandied about as a potential All Blacks bolter.

Mikaele-Tu’u didn’t pay too much attention to the noise, however.

“There was obviously a little bit of chatter, it’s hard to ignore it completely,” he said. “Our media team always asked me if I could do a few interviews here and there.

“But I really try and block it out and just play my own game. I feel like if I get stuck up on that and I’m too worried about someone else’s opinion it ends up, you know, clogging up the way I perform.”

Still, like Highlanders supporters around the country, Mikaele-Tu’u was admittedly disappointed when he narrowly missed out on selection for the North v South exhibition match.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t – but it is what it is. To be honest, I was pretty stoked to be in the conversation at all.”

The selectors instead opted for Ardie Savea, Lachlan Boshier, Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane and Hoskins Sotutu while the likes of Luke Jacobson, Tom Robinson, Du’Plessis Kirifi and Sam Cane were also absent from the team for various reasons.

Effectively, Mikaele-Tu’u was pushed out simply due to the outrageous talent the North Island currently has on its hands.

“I think there were a lot of talks of wondering where New Zealand’s loose forwards were going to come from before the season kicked off but then it started and all the young fellas put their hands up,” Mikaele-Tu’u said.

“I guess it’s a tough year for selectors and picking their teams. For the overall picture, that’s good for New Zealand. It’s really good seeing how much depth we’ve got.”

And while the No 8 was absent from the North Island squad, he wasn’t ignored by the All Blacks coaches altogether.

“I had a bit of feedback on why I didn’t get selected and I’ve been given a few things that I need to go away and work on. That was a huge positive for me and I’ll take that feedback and run with it.

“I guess they didn’t really need to do that because I wasn’t really in that All Blacks frame, but it means I can get a bit of a head start on those work-ons and hopefully I can fix them during the Mitre 10 season.”

With the All Blacks potentially set to take an extended 46-man squad to Australia for the Rugby Championship this year, there’s still a chance that the 23-year-old gets the call up in the coming weeks.

For now, Mikaele-Tu’u will just be focussing on the Mitre 10 Cup – and getting his body back into top shape for what he’s really considering his second Super Rugby campaign next year.

“I like to call this my first year in terms of really getting game time and really playing footy for the Highlanders. Next year will be a more comfortable year, I think. I can just go on and I know what to expect and I know what I need to work on to try get to the next level. I know where I’m heading, I know what’s coming and I know how to prepare myself.”

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