Super Rugby
Double-team Fekitoa at your own risk
Sam Bruce
January 29, 2015
Malakai Fekitoa made a massive impact for the Highlanders in 2014 © Getty Images

Double-team Malakai Fekitoa at your own risk; the Highlanders have plenty of other attacking threats available in 2015.

That's the message from skipper Nasi Manu anyway, the No.8 who led the Highlanders back into the Super Rugby play-offs in 2014 after an absence of 12 years. A semi-final appearance was largely deemed to be an over-achievement for a side many had slated for a lowly finish, yet it only left the Highlanders hungry for more.

"The boys were pretty gutted after that quarter-final," Manu told ESPN of the 31-27 loss to the Sharks in Durban. "I think there were just some key moments that could have gone either way; we could have won that game. But definitely we were proud of the way we performed last year in that quarter-final but I guess it was just disappointing that we didn't quite make it. But I think this year it definitely makes us a bit hungrier to be there in the end and go further in the competition."

One of the finds of last season, Fekitoa arrived in Dunedin having been forced out of the Blues following the signing of NRL veteran Benji Marshall. That Marshall lasted eight games of Super Rugby and Fekitoa took the competition by storm largely mirrored the fortunes of both the Blues and Highlanders. The hard-running centre scored a handful of brilliant individual tries and hammered a few hapless ball-runners in a season that was later rewarded with an All Blacks call-up. That is likely to see Fekitoa receive greater defensive attention in 2015, though that won't worry the Highlanders.

Conrad Smith of the Hurricanes is hit hard by Malakai Fekitoa, Hurricanes v Highlanders, Super Rugby, Westpac Stadium, Wellington, May 16, 2014
Fekitoa was just as damaging in defence as he was in attack © Getty Images

"If you're gonna double-team on Malakai you're gonna leave room open for 'Bender' [Ben Smith]," Manu said. "And I think that's why probably the likes of Richard Buckman and Pat Osborne got a bit more space out wide, and Shaun Treeby, because of the threat of Malakai and Bender. So yeah definitely, if sides are more cautious of one player it frees up someone else; that definitely helps our team I guess."

Fekitoa, Aaron Smith and Ben Smith are among the most dangerous attacking players in the competition, giving the Highlanders the opportunity to strike from different areas and varying situations. But it will be of little consequence unless the Dunedin-based side can deliver a better platform up front in 2015; it's an area the side has been focusing on throughout the pre-season.

"We've worked a lot on our scrum, particularly in the back five, and working hard for our front-row," Manu said. "So definitely the scrum, and our lineout is something that we've really been working hard on this pre-season. I guess you can just tell by the way we've recruited players, we've got a few new props from around New Zealand and we think they can add to our game, especially with the likes of Ben Smith, Malakai and co out wide. If we can give them quality ball we can see how dangerous they can be."

The Highlanders continue their pre-season with trials against the Brumbies, Rebels and NZ Barbarians over the coming weeks before they begin the competition proper with a South Island derby against the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium in round two. They then play four of their next five games at home, giving them a great opportunity to get a jump on what will again be a tight New Zealand conference.

"I think for us it's good to have our first game at home but it's going to be very tough against a stacked Crusaders side," Manu said. "I think the way we've been building in our pre-season and I think just having our three All Blacks back this week; I think the team is just in a great buzz and everyone is pretty excited. The competition within the team is really driving our standards to go higher and I think we're just going to be a whole lot better this year. And that first game against the Crusaders is definitely going to be a huge game for us to build some confidence and get a good start."

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