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Stephen Perofeta could be the man to replace Damian McKenzie

By Tom Vinicombe
Stephen Perofeta. (Original photo by Brett Phibbs/Photosport)

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Stephen Perofeta’s exceptional performance against the Chiefs on Saturday evening could have significant ramifications later in the year.

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Just as New Zealand’s various goal-kickers were fluffing kicks left, right and centre over the weekend, All Black Damian McKenzie was putting on a clinic for Tokyo Sungoliath, scoring 31 points and landing all 11 of his shots on goal to guide his team to a 56-17 win over Kobe Steelers.

McKenzie found himself slipping down the pecking order for the All Blacks last season and his time in Japan will likely put him even further on the backfoot, assuming he returns to New Zealand later this year. As with TJ Perenara last season, McKenzie won’t be able to instantly join up with the national squad, instead having to work his way back via the NPC.

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Given all of that, there has to be a genuine chance that the firecracker makes the call to remain in Japan but even if he does return home, Ian Foster could be on the lookout for at least a temporary replacement in his absence for the July series with Ireland.

That man could be Stephen Perofeta.

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The 24-year-old utility back has been a member of the Blues since 2017, when he made his starting debut against the touring British and Irish Lions.

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While Perofeta was originally viewed first and foremost as a flyhalf, the former New Zealand Under 20s representative has made a name for himself in recent seasons at fullback. That’s the role he primarily filled for Taranaki throughout last year’s Championship-winning NPC season, with Perofeta ultimately being crowned the player of the competition, and it’s where he performed so amicably for the Blues in the victory over the Chiefs.

The game-winning try, scored by Mark Telea, was well and truly set up by a fleet-footed Perofeta who received the ball from Rieko Ioane in the middle of the pitch, just outside the Chiefs 22, raced around the outside of speedster Etene Nanai-Seturo, drew in Josh Ioane and then gave a simple pass to Telea who had a free run over the line.

To cap it off, Perofeta nailed the sideline conversion with his first and only kick of the afternoon, taking the Blues out to the 24-22 lead which they managed to hold for the rest of the match.

On a weekend where some of New Zealand’s best goal-kickers seemingly couldn’t buy a trick, Perofeta walked the walk.

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Those last-minute heroics shouldn’t overshadow the rest of the fullback’s performance, however, with Perofeta impressing with every touch of the ball.

As just a teenager, Perofeta was once prematurely hailed as New Zealand’s future in the No 10 jersey. Injuries, coupled with the ostensible lack of confidence that flows from being regularly sidelined, ensured Perofeta never lived up to that unreasonable billing in his formative years with the Blues but now that he finally has some regular minutes and ample experience under his belt, it’s worth asking whether the Blues playmaker might be worthy of opportunities on the higher stage.

Last year, Perofeta kept the immensely promising Zarn Sullivan out of the Blues’ fullback role, with the youngster only stepping into the No 15 jersey when Perofeta went down injured ahead of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

Sullivan flourished against the Australian sides and some might have suspected that Perofeta’s time in the starting line-up could be done and dusted but his strong showing for Taranaki coupled with the full package Perofeta delivered against the Chiefs will have likely forced a rethink. With Harry Plummer also going down injured over the weekend, it’s difficult to envisage a situation where Perofeta isn’t an automatic starter – either at fullback or first five-eighth.

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Beauden Barrett played his first match of the year off the bench against the Chiefs and while the All Blacks pivot will undoubtedly have benefited from the run-around, he look well short of the mark in the final quarter and throwing him straight into the No 10 jersey against the Highlanders could be asking too much.

Perofeta, on the other hand, is fit and firing and might be worth another run at first receiver. With Sullivan also available, the best option might be to leave Barrett coming off the bench for at least another week or two before shifting him into his preferred flyhalf role.

Whatever Leon MacDonald and his fellow Blues selectors decide to do with Barrett, Perofeta will undoubtedly run out against the Highlanders and will shift into first receiver when necessary throughout the match. That’s a useful talent to have – something which the likes of Jordie Barrett and Will Jordan are still mastering the art of – and the kind of additional talent that could pave the way for higher honours.

It’s still early days in the new season but Stephen Perofeta made all the right moves against the Chiefs and if the 24-year-old can reproduce similar showings in the weeks to come, he would certainly be worth a look from the powers that be.

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