Injury-ravaged Highlanders given boost as young All Blacks prospect begins road to recovery
The injury-ravaged Highlanders have received positive news that one of their most promising youngsters has begun his long road to recovery.
Interim head coach Clarke Dermody revealed on Thursday that star halfback Folau Fakatava has returned to the franchise’s headquarters after successful surgery on the ACL that he tore during his side’s shock 33-12 win over the Crusaders in April.
The injury is expected to keep the 21-year-old, tipped by many to become a leading All Black in the future, sidelined until between February and April, but the news that Fakatava is back in training will be warmly welcomed.
The Highlanders have endured a torrid run of injuries this year. Heading into this Saturday’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman clash against the Waratahs at Forsyth Barr Stadium, no fewer than 12 players have been ruled unavailable due to various injuries.
Among that list includes current and former All Blacks loose forwards Shannon Frizell, who is out for up to six weeks with a foot injury, and Liam Squire, who has been out of action since March because of a knee problem.
Three-test Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley and two-test Tongan midfielder Fetuli Paea, both of whom were star recruits for the Highlanders this year, also had their seasons ended before they began thanks to high ankle sprains sustained during pre-season.
Elsewhere, breakthrough youngsters Connor Garden-Bachop (hand), Marino Mikaele-Tu’u (leg), Thomas Umaga-Jensen (wrist) and Freedom Vahaakolo (foot) all had their seasons cut short at different stages throughout the campaign.
That’s still not taking into account the various other setbacks the likes of Josh Ioane, Solomon Alaimalo, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Ayden Johnstone, Pari Pari Parkinson, Patelesio Tomkinson, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Sam Gilbert, Ngatungane Punivai, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Teariki Ben-Nicholas and Sione Misiloi have gone through in 2021.
As a result, the Highlanders have been left stretched for playing personnel at certain points of a year that head coach Tony Brown, who is currently on leave with Japan, heralded as “exciting” four months ago due to the depth he had within his roster.
Those stocks have taken a heavy hit since then, but the early stages of Fakatava’s return is a step in the right direction as the Highlanders prepare to end this season and begin planning for the new-look competition in 2022.
“He’s back on track now,” Dermody told reporters ahead of this weekend’s clash against the winless New South Welshmen.
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“I’m not sure of his return, it normally takes a long time [to come back] from those injuries, but I think everything went well, by the sounds of things, and he’s now back in the building training.
“The cheeky smile is back, so he’s getting through his rehab well.”
Getting Fakatava, the Tongan-born starlet who was enjoying a breakout season and was considered a genuine chance at All Blacks selection before injury struck, fit and firing for next year’s edition of Super Rugby will be crucial for the Highlanders.
Fakatava’s presence in the match day squad also relieved Smith of plenty of pressure from the No 9 jersey as the seasoned veteran had frequently been called upon to play large chunks of matches on a week-to-week basis in recent seasons.
Before his future successor’s injury, Smith enjoyed a more balanced playing schedule as Fakatava was entrusted to play a prominent role in each match.
However, since that win over the Crusaders, Smith has featured as heavily for the Highlanders as he had in years gone by, something of which he said in March was “not fathomable” and made him “a broken man” by the end of last season.
Smith added that if he is to attend his third World Cup as a 34-year-old in 2023, he needs reduced playing minutes on a regular basis, which is why it is imperative for the Highlanders – and All Blacks – for Fakatava to return to the fray as soon as possible.
In order for that to happen, Dermody has ensured the Highlanders will offer their star youngster as much support as necessary during his recovery.
“Our medical team is obviously first-rate, so they get a lot of one-on-one time [with Fakatava and other injured players], making sure that they’re really planned and organised around their rehab, and I guess not trying to rush those things,” Dermody said.
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“I understand it’s going to take a long time [for Fakatava to recover], and you will have your tough days in there as well. It’s part of rugby. I’d say they get looked after really, really well through the weeks.”
Smith’s prolonged playing time since Fakatava’s absence has forced him onto the sidelines this weekend as he’s been rested from the side that will take on the Waratahs.
Filling his void on the bench is 20-year-old James Arscott, who is in line for his Highlanders debut and is one of many highly-touted halfbacks, such as ex-New Zealand Schools star Noah Hotham and New Zealand U20 representative Nathan Hastie, within coming through the ranks at the franchise.
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