Malakai Fekitoa’s playing CV would have fostered a certain expectation ahead of joining Munster last summer. A World Cup winner with New Zealand in 2015, 24 caps for the All Blacks, and stints with the Blues, Highlanders, Toulon and Wasps meant that he represented a marquee signing.
But beneath the bald statement lie the circumstances and challenges that the 30-year-old Tongan-born centre has encountered since arriving in Limerick. A new coaching team under Graham Rowntree had to formulate a playing style. Mike Prendergast, Andy Kyriacou, and Denis Leamy, all new to their respective roles in Munster, were part of the process.
The senior Ireland players were late back following their exploits in New Zealand, while another chunk of the squad went on the three-match tour to South Africa with Emerging Ireland in September. Munster struggled, losing five of their first seven matches in the United Rugby Championship (URC).
Fekitoa started six of those games, playing 12 and 13. He had three different centre partners in Chris Farrell, Dan Goggin, and Rory Scannell; played outside three out-halves, Ben Healy, Joey Carbery and Jack Crowley; and inside seven wings, Calvin Nash, Liam Coombes, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Conor Phillips, Patrick Campbell and Shane Daly.
Building relationships takes time. The quietly-spoken Tongan, who has been warmly welcomed, understands the gelling process and highlighted his experience in his first year at Wasps to endorse the argument; the club struggled early on before eventually making the finals.
He says: “When I joined, you had a group of players that worked together, and then, a week later after round one (URC) they took off to go off with the Emerging Ireland (squad). That was almost a starting XV. I know that is not an excuse, but it is something that we faced and struggled with. The internationals came back, and a couple of weeks later they took off again.
“We (would) get a whole 15 on Tuesday, and by Friday it (would) be 11 of 15 (left); people pull out, sickness, those are the things that we had to deal with, that people don’t know. I think the next block is the most important part of where we are together.”
I’ve been playing the game for a long time now, and I know that if I keep working hard and show up, it is going to turn
Munster’s memorable victory over South Africa A in Páirc Ui Chaoimh has provided a slingshot in terms of results, as did subsequent wins against Connacht and Edinburgh in the URC. Fekitoa, who came on as a replacement in Cork, made a few mistakes in the previous game, a 15-14 defeat to Ulster.
Having started for Tonga in their 43-19 win over Uruguay in Romania, last month he didn’t make the matchday 23 for the two URC victories. “It (the pressure) is hard at times, but I love it,” he says. “I’ve been playing the game for a long time now, and I know that if I keep working hard and show up, it is going to turn. The next block is going to be big. Hopefully I get to contribute, and I get selected.
“I am slowly getting there. What I am proud about is that I am getting lighter on my feet and am making plays on both sides of the ball. It hasn’t connected yet, hasn’t come off in some decisions, but I know this is part of rugby and, as long as I have the right attitude, it will fall into place.” He’d love to prove that point in the opening Champions Cup match against Toulouse at Thomond Park on Sunday.
Fekitoa was born and lived in Tonga until 16 years of age, the eighth of 15 children, before getting a scholarship to Wesley College in New Zealand. He then caught the eye of the All Blacks selectors, having originally played Sevens for Tonga. He scored two tries against Ireland in his penultimate appearance for New Zealand.
I know that as long as I have the right attitude, it will fall into place
The wheel has come full circle, albeit his decision to revert was not without some misgivings. Tonga – who are in Ireland’s pool at the World Cup next year – have meagre resources for food, budget, hotels, kit and even rugby balls. The country is just beginning to recover from the tsunami that devastated the country earlier this year.
Fekitoa was a principal figure in raising NZ$180,000 for disaster relief and, through his agency, shipped food and materials to the islands. Going back to play rugby for Tonga superseded those other considerations. “For my career and for my family, to go back and represent the country of my birth is great,” he says.
“I struggled a bit in those first two to three weeks in June. I struggled a lot emotionally as well, thinking if I had made the right decision or not. But then I think of my family or every kid around the islands.
“Now I am hoping to inspire all those young kids out there that they can play for Tonga and still play for Munster or for Leinster, the big teams, and still be good enough.
“You can see the mood change and how proud they are of us around back home, just by the energy and the way they talk and a lot of pride. Every game we have had, you see it on social media and how much it means to them in the celebration.”