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'We were trying to build the best combo in the country': Highlanders star Aaron Smith's devastation over Folau Fakatava injury

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

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Highlanders co-captain Aaron Smith has revealed he is “brutally disappointed” for rising Highlanders star Folau Fakatava following his season-ending knee injury.


Fakatava limped from the field during his side’s shock 33-12 win over the Crusaders in Christchurch a fortnight ago with an injury that was later revealed to be a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

The 21-year-old has subsequently been ruled out of action for between nine-to-12 months in what has been a bitter blow for the Highlanders and All Blacks.

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Fakatava, a dynamic ball-carrier who is uncompromising defensively, is widely-regarded as Smith’s long-term successor for both teams and had been a standout for the Highlanders in the lead-up to his season-ending injury.

Regardless of whether he started or came off the bench, Fakatava worked well in tandem with Smith, who is renowned for his world-class distribution and unparalleled energy, to deliver a one-two punch of contrasting styles in their first five matches of the season.

Speaking to Sky Sport following the Highlanders’ 35-29 victory over the Blues in Dunedin on Friday, Smith said he and Fakatava were trying to make their combination the best in New Zealand, which is why he was “really gutted” for the promising youngster.

“To be honest, I’m brutally disappointed that Folau got hurt,” Smith said when asked what the motivation has been behind his impressive personal performances this season after masterminding his side’s win against the Blues.


“I thought our little combo we were building was great. I thought we were kinda trying to build the best combo in the country as two No 9s, whoever started or would finish the game.

“Really gutted for Folau, and I just love this team. It’s not over. We’ve got a week off. We need to refresh and then we’ve got to go up to the Hurricanes.”

Fakatava’s injury blow is even more cruel given that his lengthy spell on the sideline is set to make him ineligible to represent the All Blacks until 2023 under World Rugby’s new residency laws.

The game’s global governing body is extending the residency period required to make foreign players eligible for their adopted nation from three years to five years, an law alteration which will come into effect on December 31, 2021.


Although Fakatava moved from Tonga to New Zealand on a rugby scholarship in 2016, World Rugby’s guidelines state that the residency period doesn’t begin until the player’s 18th birthday.

Fakatava’s 18th birthday fell on December 16, 2017, meaning, under World Rugby’s current three-year residency law, he has been eligible to play for the All Blacks since last December.

However, given the length of his injury, Fakatava won’t be able to play for the New Zealand national side before World Rugby extends its residency requirements to five years at the end of this year.

That means Fakatava won’t be eligible to play for the All Blacks until December 2022, by which point the national team’s next test match would likely be scheduled for July 2023 – just two months out from that year’s World Cup in France.

Fakatava’s agent, Kent Hale, confirmed his client’s situation to Stuff earlier this week, but was hopeful an appeal from New Zealand Rugby could make the halfback exempt from the residency extension given he has lived in the country since 2016.

“He’s got an injury and is booked into surgery. I’m sure there might be a bit that goes on behind the scenes with NZ Rugby, the Highlanders and potentially the All Blacks, but his focus is the injury,” Hale told Stuff.

“He’s got a bit of work to do prior to the operation to gibe him self the best possible chance to get back out onto the field.

“The last thing we want to be doing is ramming that [eligibility discussion] down his throat when the injury is still so fresh.”

The Highlanders, meanwhile, have moved into third place on the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings following their season-reviving win over the Blues.

With 14 points to their name, the Dunedin-based franchise sit just one point behind the second-placed Blues, who currently occupy one of the two qualifying spots for a ticket in the competition’s final on May 8.

However, the Blues have a game in hand over their southern rivals, as do the fourth-placed Chiefs, who sit two points behind the Highlanders ahead of their crunch match with the league-leading Crusaders in Hamilton on Saturday.

The Highlanders will have a bye next week before travelling to Wellington to face off against the Hurricanes in their final regular season match of Super Rugby Aotearoa.


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