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'Signing of the decade': New Zealand's fullback riches on show as Highlanders' recruit stars

By Ben Smith
Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens of the Highlanders. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Round one of Super Rugby Pacific saw the emergence of New Zealand’s next crop of fullbacks with Chay Fihaki, Zarn Sullivan and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens all scoring doubles.

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New Highlanders recruit Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens tore up Moana Pasifika with a dazzling performance in the No 15 jersey, scoring two tries in the 35-20 win.

His performance lead Otago Daily Times to describe him as a jackpot signing from the Blues. Hayden Meikle wrote he “might be the best signing the Highlanders have made in a decade” after his club debut.

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The Taranaki-product scored the game’s first try with some shifty fullback close to the line. Another powerful carry by the fullback helped lay the platform for the Highlanders’ second which was finished by Saula Ma’u from a short ball by halfback Folau Fakatava.

Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens was difficult to tackle all night, beating 10 defenders on his 14 carries as he added some spark to the Highlanders’ attack.

After Moana Pasifika took an unexpected 21-14 lead, it was the Highlanders’ fullback latching onto a gem of a pass by Rhys Patchell from a set-piece play to score a blistering try. In open space the 22-year-old had too much speed for the last man in cover to level proceedings.

The Highlanders’ No 15 was a sensation in his first start for the new club, but he wasn’t the only fullback to star on the opening weekend.

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At the Blues Zarn Sullivan scored a double as well, although Sullivan’s finishes were relatively easier, while at the Crusaders Chay Fihaki announced himself as a genuine option at fullback as well.

During the second-half comeback after trailing 27-10 at half-time, Fihaki produced a stunner from a planned play from the goal line restart.

From an inside line near the ruck the fullback burst up the middle and showed a turn of pace to split the backfield defenders Shaun Stevenson and Josh Ioane.

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The explosive try was Fihaki’s second of the night after earlier capitalising on the smart work of Dallas McLeod and Rivez Reihana inside to open up the Chiefs’ defence.

For the Hurricanes Ruben Love was equally damaging producing two line breaks, including the initial break to set-up debutant Jordi Viljoen.

With Will Jordan out for the Super Rugby Pacific season and Beauden Barrett currently playing Japan, concerns around who could wear the All Blacks No 15 jersey will subside quickly if these performances continue.

Last year’s breakout star Shaun Stevenson of the Chiefs had his classy moments with two try assists, but it spoke volumes to the depth in New Zealand rugby when other young fullbacks stole the spotlight on the opening weekend.

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