Solomon Alaimalo is heading south for Super Rugby 2021, having signed a three-year deal with the Highlanders. The Auckland-born speedster represented the Chiefs from 2017 until 2020 but decided that it was time to make a change, and will return to the island where he was born and raised.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with The XV, Alaimalo revealed that one of the key motivators behind the move was the opportunity to stake a claim for the No 15 jersey, with Damian McKenzie a mainstay and automatic selection at fullback for the Chiefs.

Alaimalo, however, earned his Super Rugby stripes playing on the wing and in just his second New Zealand derby, was tasked with marking World Rugby Player of the Year nominee for 2014 and 2015, Julian Savea.

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“My confidence took off after a game against the Hurricanes in 2017,” Alaimalo told The XV. “That was one of my first starts and I’ve never been so nervous because I was marking Jules.”

While in years gone by, match footage was only available for professional coaching set-ups for review processes, the rise and rise of YouTube has ensured that anyone, anywhere in the world can get their hands on highlights packages of games or individual players.

That may have with preparation, but it can also have the opposite effect.

“I remember asking a few of the boys, ‘Bro, how am I supposed to tackle this guy? If I go up high, he’s going to bump me off. If I go off low, he’s going to step over me.’ To this day, I’ve never been so fixated on an opposition player – I watched his highlights montages before games and that didn’t help. I was just psyching myself out.”

It didn’t take long in the match for Alaimalo and Savea to go head-to-head and thankfully, Alaimalo had a teammate on hand to help deal with the incoming ‘Bus’.

“He got the ball on the edge and he was real close to the sidelines. I was just inside him and I was sure he was going to go over me, but I just closed my eyes and I tried to wrap his legs and then I just felt someone get over the top – I think it might have been Sam Cane – and we bundled him out.”

Cane, of course, is one of the most aggressive defenders in the New Zealand game and one of the toughest players around, and while Alaimalo may well have had the technique necessary to bring down the 108 kilo, 6-foot 3-inch Savea on his own, Cane’s presence no doubt helped put a stopper on the Hurricanes winger’s rampage.

It was a confidence-boosting moment for Alaimalo and no doubt an episode that the outside back can call on if he ever needs to remind himself that he’s capable of taking any player down.

“After that, it was all good. I had a pretty good game and my confidence from then on was fine – but it was obviously scary at the time.”

Alaimalo is now well into pre-season training with the Highlanders and should be fit and ready for his new side’s pre-season clash with the Crusaders in the coming weeks, having been sidelined since the middle stages of the 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa season.

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