AUCKLAND, New Zealand — All Blacks back Malakai Fekitoa will have a point to prove if he is given the opportunity to face the British & Irish Lions in the deciding third Test in Auckland, scrum-half Aaron Smith says.
Fekitoa was on Sunday called into the All Blacks’ squad after Sonny Bill Williams was handed a four-week suspension for his shoulder charge on Lions winger Anthony Watson in Saturday night’s 24-21 loss in Wellington.
The Highlanders centre had been the unlucky omission when All Blacks coach Steve Hansen named his squad ahead of the series – Fekitoa had topped an ESPN All Blacks outside centre poll – but with Williams’ suspension coming on the back of Ryan Crotty’s injury from the first Test, Fekitoa will now vie with the uncapped Jack Goodhue and Saturday night’s debutant Ngani Laumape for the chance to partner Anton Lienert-Brown in midfield.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen says his side could have played ‘smarter’ in the closing minutes of Saturday night’s 24-21 loss to the British & Irish Lions, at least earning themselves a draw at Westpac Stadium.
“He’s a very physical player and that suits his side of the game,” Smith said of Fekitoa. “Very confrontational, that ‘take nothing’ attitude; he’ll go hard and do his job really well. Also probably, if he gets the opportunity, [he’ll have] a bit of a chip on his shoulder and maybe a bit of ‘no fear attitude’ coming in; he’s knows what he has to do.”
Fekitoa recently became the first Australian or New Zealand athlete to be featured in ESPN’s Body Issue, joining the likes of tennis star Caroline Wozniacki and New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman. That honour and Fekitoa’s ability to hit hard in defence are clearly down to his work in the gym, where Smith declared him one of the All Blacks’ best.
“Yeah I saw him at breakfast and it was a really good thing to see,” Smith said of Fekitoa’s arrival. “I’m just happy and excited that someone wants to be back and you could just really see the true grin and the happiness in his face.
“It’s really good to have him around and, in the gym, [Fekitoa] always work really hard. He doesn’t say much but through his facial expressions and his body language you could tell he was really happy to be in the house.”
If Fekitoa is given the job in his preferred outside centre spot, a true challenge awaits him in the form of Lions ace Jonathan Davies who has turned in two classy displays. The Welshman has been among the tourists’ best in each of the first two Tests, and made an astonishing five clean breaks last time out at Eden Park.
But the All Blacks have far more to focus on than just Davies, with Smith admitting the Lions won the breakdown battle and muscled up far better in defence around the tackle area in Wellington.
“Obviously Test 1, they wanted to fill the field and try to defend us across the park and we went through them,” Smith said. “But Test 2, I think the conditions suited the kind of game they wanted to play; they wanted to make it a real struggle at the ruck and they were just in there. And maybe we weren’t able to get our assertiveness with our carries to make our cleaners good.
“But they definitely had a real emphasis on that [the breakdown]; I think how the game went, we didn’t help ourselves and we didn’t attack where they weren’t and it’s something we’re gonna fix this week.”