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What current All Blacks make of Malakai Fekitoa switching to Tonga

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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Former All Blacks midfielder Malakai Fekitoa has opened up about the support he has received from current and former New Zealand players who have backed his decision to change allegiance and represent Tonga. Despite playing 24 Test games for the All Blacks between 2014 and 2017, the 29-year-old became Tongan-eligible when he took advantage of a sevens rugby loophole that allowed him to play for the country of his birth last June in an Olympic qualifying event in Monaco. 

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That freed up Fekitoa to represent Tonga at Test level in the recent Autumn Nations Series only for injury with his club Wasps to put that opportunity on hold. When he does eventually get to play in 2022, the allegiance rules will have changed anyway following last month’s seismic World Rugby council decision.

A three-step criteria will now be applied for a Test capped player to change countries from January 1: The player must stand down from international rugby for 36 months, the player must either be born in the country to which they wish to transfer or have a parent or grandparent born in that country, and a player may only change union once. Each case will be subject to approval by the World Rugby regulations committee to preserve the integrity.

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The change of allegiance has been a thrill for Fekitoa and in an in-depth interview in the latest edition of the Rugby Journal magazine, he has spoken about how the switch to Tonga has been received. “Everyone is really happy for me, even the current All Blacks, guys back home and past All Blacks because I am good friends with a lot of them,” he explained.  

“The guys in the current team are supporting my decision. They wish me well and they are all happy for me. A lot of them are islanders as well. There is a lot of Tongans in the current team and Samoans and they know what it is like. 

“They know it is all about the families and the culture. I don’t gain anything from going back – we don’t get paid a lot of money or anything. But I am going for the right reason, to give back, and I think those guys are happy for me,” added Fekitoa, who represented Tonga as a 16-year-old at the Wellington Sevens when he was offered a life-changing scholarship to Wesley College which set him on the path to go on and play for the All Blacks.

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Reflecting on his week on sevens duty in Monaco earlier this year, Fekitoa said: “After all these years, it felt the same. The whole place, how they treated us, the whole environment. It’s still the Tonga boys. Island guys, laid back, some of them never on time. The feeling was the same but for myself, I feel a lot of responsibilities now. 

“I just feel the weight of representing my country now. I am so experienced. I’ve done everything. I have got a lot of people to represent so in a way it feels a lot different to last time.”

His hope now with the eligibility rules having changed, other players whose Test careers with the leading nations are over will follow suit and step back into the international arena for a tier-two nation. “I understand some guys are Kiwi at heart, or Australian born and raised, but I think if you haven’t played 100 games, why don’t you (switch)? Especially some very talented guys who are still under 30.

“I wanted to come out and lead the way, so hopefully they follow that. It’s okay to play for tier two nations and it’s okay to change. You can use your talent when you are still young. You are under 30, you have still got ten years left in the game and you can use that to inspire another generation to play the game.”

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