Malakai Fekitoa - one of the best backs in the world

Malakai Fekitoa is currently one of the best backs in the world. The former All Black has had a very unique career that has taken him across the world. Fekitoa is a phenomenal player and so lets take a look at the man.

Early beginnings

Born in Tonga in 1992, Malakair Fekitoa spent the majority of his childhood growing up in the Pacific Islands. More specifically, Fekitoa spent the majority of his time living in Ha’apai where he was born. Ha’apai is a group of islands that is the central part of Tonga. The group of islands is quite small, with only around 8,000 when Fekitoa was growing up.

As a youngster, Fekitoa went to Tonga College which is a Tongan secondary school, with usually around 1,000 students in total. Fekitoa was one of 15 children, so his childhood was not an easy one. In fact in previous interviews, Fekitoa has stated that he had a very difficult childhood, rarely having enough food for breakfast or lunch.

Fekitoa started off playing touch rugby, before moving to playing sevens rugby. Fekitoa was so good at sevens rugby that he joined the youth ranks of the Tongan sevens team. Joining the international set up gave Fekitoa a chance to show his skills overseas, primarily on sevens tours of New Zealand.

One of those tours with his national team, Fekitoa caught the attention of Wesley College. Wesley College has been a brilliant rugby school for decades, started by one very famous alumni. Wesley College was the school that Jonah Lomu attended, before Lomu went on to become one of the best rugby players of all time.

When Malakai joined the school, he was alongside a lot of future New Zealand stars. Over the last 15 years Wesley College has produced All Blacks like Charles Piutau, Nepo Laulala and Stephen Donald. The college has also produced French international and Grand Slam winner Uini Atonio, as well as former Australian captain Sekope Kepu.

So Fekitoa was going to the right school for a successful rugby career. Going to school in the Auckland area, Fekitoa caught the attention of the Auckland side, who feed into the Blues Super Rugby team. This gave Fekitoa his first chance at getting a professional contract.

Professional debut

At the age of 20, Fekitoa was able to make his debut for Auckland in 2012 in the ITM Cup. Fekitoa was impressive in his first season of professional rugby, scoring 3 tries in his first ITM Cup season. Impressive performances meant that Fekitoa got a call up to the Blues team for the 2013 Super Rugby season.

However, things did not work out for Fekitoa with the Blues. He did not make a single appearance in Super Rugby, finally making his Blues debut against France in June. The issue for Fekitoa was that the Blues had some excellent back options including Francis Saili, Rene Ranger, Charles Piutau and Jackson Willison.

Fekitoa continued to excel in domestic rugby, despite not getting any opportunities in Super Rugby. It meant that the young Tongan player started to get attention from other Super Rugby teams. It eventually meant that Fekitoa signed a one year deal with the Highlanders.

2014 turned into a breakout season for Fekitoa in his maiden campaign with the Highlanders. In 17 Super Rugby games, Fekitoa scored 7 tries and played excellently throughout the campaign. It was the first time that we got to see Malakai testing himself against world class opposition week in week out.

The young centre looked like an incredibly exciting prospect and thankfully for New Zealand, he had completed his three years of residency that allowed him to play for the All Blacks.

Becoming an international

During his breakout season, Fekitoa had been getting attention from All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. Hansen had expressed an interest in bringing Fekitoa into the national team and that is exactly what he did. He was selected as part of the squad to take on a touring English side, one of only four Highlanders players to make the squad.

Hansen was honest about wanting Fekitoa in the national team. He was named on the bench for the first test against England, making his debut when he came off the bench in the 59th minute. It was a good debut for Fekitoa, as he was able to help the All Blacks edge past England with a 77th minute try from Conrad Smith.

Fekitoa was an unused sub in the second test, before making his starting debut in the third thanks to an injury to usual starter Conrad Smith. The youngster was faced with Manu Tuilagi opposite him, who was very much seen as one of the best centre prospects in the world at the time. But Fekitoa played well, helping Julian Savea score a hattrick.

After a brilliant first test series with New Zealand, Fekitoa was very much seen as the long term replacement for Conrad Smith, who was coming to the end of his international career. His performances warranted an extension with the Highlanders through to the end of 2017.

The extension worked out brilliantly immediately for the Highlanders. Fekitoa was involved in 13 wins for the Highlanders as they reached the Super Rugby Final, coming up against the Hurricanes. He was key in the Highlanders winning the game and claiming their first Super Rugby title.

At 23 years old, Fekitoa was already a Super Rugby champion and one of the best players in New Zealand. He was looked at as the future of the centres for New Zealand, but things did not work out as you might have expected for Fekitoa.

A big decision

Months after winning Super Rugby, Fekitoa was selected to go to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. However just by looking at the squad, you can see it was always going to be unlikely for him playing in the latter stages of the tournament. Fekitoa had to compete against Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Sonny Bill Williams for the centre positions, an incredibly difficult task.

With Sonny Bill Williams chosen as the centre replacement for the All Blacks, Fekitoa saw limited action in the World Cup. He did not feature in the final, but still earned a medal as New Zealand beat Australia in the final.

With Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Ma’a Nonu all excluded from the squad for the 2016 Welsh tour of New Zealand, Fekitoa seemed like the man to profit after the 2015 World Cup. He started both of the first two games of the series, but an injury prevented him from starting in the third game.

Alongside injury, Fekitoa’s form started to waver. He was often erratic in his performances, causing New Zealand to consider other options. Guys like Ryan Crotty and Anthony Liener Brown started to rise higher in the pecking order and Fekitoa was often in and out of the team.

He did tour Europe with New Zealand towards the end of 2016, but his most notable moment was a yellow card against Ireland which caused him to be suspended for New Zealand’s final game of the year.

Despite more good performances with the Highlanders, Fekitoa only played a part in the British and Irish Lions series of 2017 due to the red card for Sonny Bill Williams. Fekitoa came off the bench in the third test.

2017 was a massive year for Fekitoa’s career, as his contract with New Zealand rugby and the Highlanders expiring. The difficulty for Fekitoa was he was not certain that a place in the All Blacks team was guaranteed and he was getting some big offers outside of New Zealand. The issue is, the All Blacks only select players who are playing their domestic rugby in New Zealand.

So would Fekitoa stay in New Zealand or chase a move abroad?

Moving to Europe

In July 2017, Fekitoa announced a massive decision for his career. He signed a two-year contract with former European champions Toulon. Toulon are one of the richest rugby teams in the world and they were just two years on from winning three Champions Cup trophies in a row.

Fekitoa was going to be the perfect partner for Mathieu Bastereaud with this Toulon side. His time with Toulon was not as successful as either side would have hoped for. Fekitoa played excellently individually, able to match the physicality of domestic French rugby. He became a regular starter for the Toulon side.

But in the two seasons that Fekitoa was with Toulon, they were not able to reach a final in any competition. Toulon lost in the semi-final qualifiers for the Top 14 in his first season, as well as losing in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup to Munster, who would be dumped out of the competition in the next round.

The 18-19 season was even worse in Europe, with Toulon failing to make it out of the group stage of the Champions Cup. Things were even worse in the league, with Toulon finishing ninth in the Top 14, well outside the playoff places.

The issue for Toulon at the time was they were going through a period of immense change. A lot of the international superstars that had helped them win the Champions Cup had left after 2016 and this left a team that was going through transition. Fekitoa tried his best dragging this team to success but it was not enough.

It eventually caused Fekitoa to look for another move when his two year deal with Toulon expired at the end of the 2018-19 season. In January 2019, Fekitoa announced he had signed a three year deal with Wasps. It was an interesting move, as Wasps did not have the same European pedigree in recent years that Toulon did.

However, Wasps did have a history of splashing the cash on international talent. They had previously signed Willie Le Roux, Alapati Leiua and Lima Sopoaga in similar fashion.

European journeyman

Fekitoa had a very up and down time with Wasps. His first season with Wasps was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic. When the season did begin again, Fekitoa was able to make a big difference in the Premiership Rugby semi-final. He scored Wasps first try as they stormed past Bristol to the final.

However, their star centre injured his groin early in the semi-final and was substituted just 10 minutes into the semi-final. Sadly for Fekitoa, the final was just two weeks later and it was too soon for him to return from injury. He was unable to help Wasps against the Exeter Chiefs as his side lost 19-13. Fekitoa had to watch from the side-lines as the Wasps attack stuttered without him.

Wasps regressed to a mid-table side after that final in 2020, finishing eighth in the 2020-21 Premiership season. Fekitoa struggled with injury at this time and only played 14 times for Wasps that season. In fact he only featured once in the Champions Cup for Wasps. Things only got worse on the injury front a year later.

Fekitoa only featured nine times in the league for Wasps and he failed to score a try in any competition with the team. With Wasps finances deteriorating, he did not get the offer he wanted from the Coventry based side and so looked for a move abroad. Fekitoa eventually landed with URC side Munster.

At the time he was announced as a signing, Fekitoa had signed a two year deal with the Irish province. Fekitoa had a massive job, as he was the replacement for World Cup winner Damian de Allende who left Munster for a more lucrative offer in Japan.

Thankfully for Fekitoa and the province, his injury issues seemed to get better after his move to Munster. In total, Fekitoa played 15 times in the URC for Munster, as well as two appearances in the Champions Cup. Despite a more impressive injury record than previously, his time in Munster has not been brilliant.

We have rarely seen the Malakai Fekitoa that was a massive attacking threat with the Highlanders and Toulon. He has lost some of the quickness and aggression that made Fekitoa such a good player. Munster were clearly not completely thrilled with the production they have gotten out of the former All Black.

Despite initial reports saying he signed a two year deal with the Irish province, Fekitoa will not be playing rugby for Munster in the 2023-24 season. He has been announced as a Benetton player for next season. It may seem like a bit of a downgrade, considering Munster are one of the most successful European domestic sides.

But Fekitoa is joining an incredibly exciting, young Benetton team that features exciting internationals like Michele Lamaro, Sebastian Negri and Edoardo Padovani. Fekitoa could be the piece which helps Benetton reach the knockout stages of the URC for the first time, as well as helping in Europe.

A return to international rugby

Considering Fekitoa has stayed in Europe for his domestic rugby, it may be confusing to hear that he is back playing international rugby and could even feature at the Rugby World Cup later this year. It is down to World Rugby making some big adjustments to the eligibility rules around switching allegiance.

World Rugby adjusted the rules so that players who had previously played international rugby for one team could play for a different one as long as it has been move than three years since their last cap. Fekitoa last played for New Zealand in 2017 and so he became eligible for the country of his birth, Tonga, in 2020.

He made his Tongan debut in 2022 in the Pacific Nations Cup and it looks likely that Fekitoa will feature at the Rugby World Cup later this year. He is now joined in the Tongan team by former All Blacks like Vaea Fifita, Charles Piutau and George Moala. Former Wallabies Israel Folau and Lopeti Timani are also likely to feature.

Playing style

Malakai Fekitoa is a brilliant attacking option. He is fast, strong and runs some brilliant lines through opposition defences. He may not be the big physical option who runs the first line from a set piece, but if you give him space he can run through you or around you. Fekitoa creates mismatches with all of the backs.

He works best alongside a creative 12 who gets the best out of him. Fekitoa excelled with Wasps partly due to having Jimmy Gopperth playing alongside him at 12. He is primarily an outside centre, but has occasionally played at Inside Centre or on the wing.

His fast feet are also crucial in defence, making it very difficult to attack against him.

What the future holds for Fekitoa

His move to Benetton is an incredibly exciting one. Very few world class players have moved to Italian teams before and Fekitoa could be a trend setter in that sense. His career is far from over and I think this move to Benetton could be a massive one for the former All Black.

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