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Lakai ready for Super Rugby after best NPC season by a loose forward since Savea

By Adam Julian
Peter Lakai of Wellington holds the Ranfurly Shield. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

It was fitting when Wellington won their first NPC Premiership title in 22 years, Peter Lakai kicked the ball out to terminate time in the final against Canterbury.

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The winner of the New Zealand Rugby Age Grade Player of the Year award was like a senior veteran in 2022. The barnstorming loose forward also a nominee for the Duane Monkley Medal as best and fairest player in the NPC.

“I’m very humbled to win this award but it’s more about my teammates and the coaches,” Lakai told RugbyPass.

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“The highlight of the season was winning the Ranfurly Shield and the NPC. The boys did a lot of hard work, and it paid off.”

Nobody worked harder in the NPC than Lakai. He made more carries (147) than any player in the competition and was third in the tackle count with 139 in the most exceptional breakthrough season by a loose forward since Ardie Savea, Lakai produced some genuine match winning moments.

On debut in the first round against Bay of Plenty he produced a herculean effort with 19 carries as the Lions nudged the stubborn Steamers 37-35.

Following an embarrassing loss to Northland in round three he scored a hat-trick in a 31-25 victory over Taranaki in the fourth round.

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“That game was good for us. We needed to get back on track with a win. Our attitude around the ruck zone was much better. The forwards really muscled up with strong pick and goes, taking it up the middle instead of going wide, wide all the time,” Lakai said.

The Lions wouldn’t lose thereafter in ten matches with a rare Ranfurly Shield triumph against Hawkes Bay in Napier on September 17 a highlight.

“It was a special feeling winning the Shield at a packed out McLean Park. We were on a four match win streak which gave us the confidence boost we needed to take on a great team like Hawke’s Bay,” Lakai said.

“It was a tough game, but we played in the right parts of the field, won the collisions and took our chances.”

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Lakai set up the only try in the match when he thrust through an initial wall of Magpie defenders before wiggling his arms free in the grasp of the next two tacklers to offload to halfback TJ Perenara.

In the final in Christchurch, the Lions outmuscled Canterbury with five All Blacks XV selections in their pack 26-18.

After nine consecutive finals defeats the Lions display, bullying Canterbury at times, looked like the dawn of a new era.

“We knew going into the Canterbury game that they liked to strike off set pieces, so we wanted to take that away from them by competing and suffocating them with our defence,” Lakai said.

“Our kicking game was good, and we got go-forward ball in their half which was important.”

Lakai is still eligible for another season of Under 20 rugby but is unlikely to compete in the age group again having signed a Super Rugby contract for the Hurricanes in October.

He was a member of the New Zealand U20s who convincingly won the Oceania Championship on the Gold Coast in July but otherwise had never featured in a National representative squad.

Lakai grew up in Taita, a suburb 30 minutes north of Wellington, and played his junior rugby for Stokes Valley and Avalon, the same club as All Black Asafo Aumua who scored a try in the NPC final against Canterbury.

His older brother Elijah is an outside back in the Avalon Colts and Mum Saline a social support worker, a quiet, humble woman who has a strong presence and a big work ethic.

Peter attended St Patrick’s College, Silverstream and was on the representative selection raider in 2017. He was a member of the Silverstream Under 15s that went 18-0 and won both the Wellington and Hurricanes Secondary Schools’ titles being named MVP in the Hurricanes series.

In 2018 he was injury cover in the First XV that won 16 of 18 games, including the Wellington Premier I championship, and all six traditional fixtures.

He solidified a permanent place in the First XV the next two years, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Silverstream lost two Premier I finals against Scots College, and Lakai wasn’t selected in any national representative teams, despite being co-captain with fellow Wellington Lions youngster Riley Higgins.

“It’s hard losing big games, but I guess that’s where you do a bit of learning. It’s character building. I guess you can grow from it or complain and make excuses.

“Silverstream was the start of many friendships. We all came through as young fellas and enjoyed playing in front of our families and friends, learning together.”

Tim Mannix is director of rugby at Silverstream. He played prop for Wellington and the Hurricanes. His brother Simon was an All Black and Tim has helped Silverstream win four Wellington Premiership titles since 2017. Mannix noted of Lakai in 2020:

“A highly regarded teammate who always displayed a positive mind-set and was respectful of others. As co-captain he made a significant impact through his actions and words.

“Played consistently well throughout the season on both attack and defence with his work ethic, decision making and all-round skill set. A settling influence in forward play, always leading by example.”

Lakai is a member of the Wellington Rugby Academy where he’s flourished and had a growth spurt.

“I’ve surprised myself a bit coming out of school and joining the Academy. It’s opened my eyes a bit in terms of a professional environment, watching and learning from others, and playing to my strengths to put it all together.”

Lakai played eight times for Petone prior to the Jubilee Cup final, and the Villagers didn’t lose a single game.

Surprisingly for a forward and personally so unassuming Sonny Bill-Williams, a midfield back, is his favourite player.

“He brought personality to rugby, a big superstar. When he played everyone wanted Sonny Bill haircuts and offloads. He was influential with us younger fellas.”

Uncle Isope also gets an honourable mention, as the man who used to “smoke” little Peter in games of knee rugby in the living room.

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Jon 3 hours ago
Why Scott Robertson may need to ease big names aside for All Blacks' flexibility

> it was apparent Robertson was worried about his lack of experience at half-back, hence the decision to start veteran TJ Perenara and put Finlay Christie, the next most experienced number nine, on the bench. I don’t think it was this at all. It was a general scope he was putting over all the playerbase, he went with this cohesion factor in every position. > If the main priority is to build different tactical elements to the gameplan, then Ratima is the man in whom Robertson needs to trust and promote. This also I think is antagonist towards the reference game plans. The other plans do not need the speed of which Perenara (atleast) can’t provide, and I think personal is going to be the main point of difference between these games/opponents. That is the aspect of which I think most people will struggle to grasp, a horses for course selection policy over the typical ‘Top All Black 15’. That best 15 group of players is going to have to get broken down into categories. So it test one we saw Christie control the game to nullify the English threats out of existence and grind to a win. In test two we saw Ratima need to come on which dictated that this time they would run them off their feet with speed and the space did open up and the victory did come. Horses for courses. The same concepts are going to exist for every group, front row, lock and loose forward balance, midfield, and outside backs all can have positional changes that the players may be asked to accentualize on and develop. There might be some that _it_ will not ever click for, but they’ll hopefully still be getting to enjoy unbelievable comeback victories and late game shutouts to close it down. Knowing does not mean not enjoying.

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