Tuesday 21 August 2018

Fekitoa ready for Red-hot Munster welcome

Toulon star’s life has prepared him for anything

Malakai Fekitoa tackles Andrew Trimble during New Zealand’s victory against Ireland in 2016, which was an eventful game for the All Black. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Malakai Fekitoa tackles Andrew Trimble during New Zealand’s victory against Ireland in 2016, which was an eventful game for the All Black. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Thomond Park has welcomed its fair share of cartoon villains down the years.

We remember Henry Paul, one of the toughest men in rugby league, but, when harangued by a series of garryowens by Ronan O'Gara, looked for all the world like a drunk trying to negotiate a particularly tricky revolving door.

Or Sebastian Chabal, once the highest-paid player in the sport, lifted, carried some 20 metres and planted on his behind as if he were a hay bale being forked from a trailer into a shed.

It's not just physical pain that is inflicted; Paul Volley was subjected to taunts that deviated well beyond even the naughtiest of any five-line eponymous ditties ever heard in the city.

Toulon arrive tomorrow with plenty of targets for intimidation; chiefly, their exiled All Black midfielder Malakai Fekitoa.

His last visit to this country coincided with a wickedly reckless forearm smash which almost decapitated Simon Zebo and, outrageously, earned merely a yellow card sanction; as the ashes settled on that violent 2016 Test, a measly one-week ban derived from the limp judiciary.

Muted

"That's the past now," he says, almost muted. "It's been two years now. I don't really remember, I guess I got suspended for a few weeks. Nah, it's in the past."

Pressed as to whether he might expect a less-than-collegiate embrace from the 16th man, he remains unruffled.

"Emm... yeah, look," he blows hard. "I hadn't heard much about Munster because I haven't played there, actually. I think I watched that game on tape when I was younger, when they beat the All Blacks.

"But I've heard a lot of things about Irish rugby and the supporters there being really behind the team, and I heard it's going to be a great atmosphere.

"Last time I was in Dublin it was crazy, you know? The stadium was full and everyone was into the game. I guess it would be a great occasion. Hopefully, I'll be a part of it."

It will be another step on a quite remarkable journey, one in which the occasional mis-steps - like that Dublin Test - are perhaps more readily understood. And also, too, his lack of concern at what might await him in Thomond Park. For life has braced him for anything that is hurled his way.

Reared on a remote island off the Tongan coast, he lived with his 13 siblings in a small hut; the away dressing-room he will change in tomorrow is larger.

After shattering his left hip as a six-year-old, kids would taunt and jeer him. "Cripple". He presumed he would never again play games, let alone sport.

Aged 14, his father died following a car crash. Despite the childhood hardship, an escape arrived in the form of a rugby scholarship, at Auckland's Wesley College, to which he would complete the 20km journey from his digs on foot.

The shy teenager, who arrived without a word of English, was then drafted by Auckland - and current Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac - but success was not guaranteed. Occasionally, he slept in a car.

This, then, is no cartoon character but a truly heroic figure. And yet his tough upbringing can, it seems, still seep through to a life now transformed by his sporting gift.

The Zebo tackle was, perhaps, only a momentary representation but last year he did publicise a lengthy statement earlier that year on social media which revealed much, much more.

"I've got a huge problem with anger," Fekitoa said in that February 2016 Instagram post.

"I don't handle some situations very well on and off the field. I get really angry sometimes and flip out so I would like to apologise publicly to any of you if I ever said something really hurtful to you at home, on the field and through social media.

"I'm ashamed and regretful. Lesson learnt. I suggest that no matter how old you are or who you are. Whatever it is. You need to speak to someone about it. Your feelings and what's inside you. It's never bad until it will cost you."

He remains an intensely closed individual as evidenced by a brief chat this week; perhaps that is why he struggles to address his engagement with Zebo; he seems to want to put it behind him. He has also waved farewell to his All Black career.

Ironically, one of the reasons he did so was the queue for a midfield slot there: Ryan Crotty, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Ngani Laumape and Jack Goodhue.

"Even though I have left New Zealand," he says in a soft tone that belies his on-field presence and menace, "I will return one day to pursue my dream."

The reality of retaining an established first-choice status still eludes him, however.

And so this week he must impress Toulon coach Fabien Galthie sufficiently that he can elbow his way into a midfield also boasting Ma'a Nonu and Mathieu Bastareaud; luxuries of which Munster can merely dream.

His weekend brace - and a double in that Dublin Test - may give him the nod. He will be ready either way. Life has prepared him for anything. Even Thomond Park.

"I want to start and I want to play really well in my first European Cup, and obviously make a statement.

"My mindset has changed in terms of whatever role I'm given, I have to give 100 per cent. If I'm on the bench or starting, I will definitely give my all.

"Every time I get on the field I still want to be the best there is."

Irish Independent

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