The Whiteboard
Memo for the Waratahs: watch Malakai Fekitoa
Brett McKay
July 3, 2014
Brett McKay dissects key plays that will have a major bearing on the Super Rugby title ©

Talk about jolting me from my Test rugby comedown, and thoughts that watching provincial teams kicking around might a bit ho-hum. Super Rugby was just thirteen-and-a-bit minutes into its return when my wife was startled by fulfilled exclamations of "oh, wow" and "wow, that's good" and "oh my God, what a finish" coming from the man cave. I hadn't been caught in the George Costanza sense, but I possibly did need a moment.

Highlanders 29-25 Chiefs (Australia only)

The Highlanders had just run in the first try of the match against the Chiefs, and it was, if it wasn't already apparent from my rather embarrassing admissions, a bloody corker. One of those tries that suddenly just materialises because of the brilliance and skill of the individuals involved. An absolute joy to watch, like so many tries from the Highlanders this season, and one reason I'm certainly hoping they can break their 12-year finals drought.

There really wasn't a lot on: the Highlanders set themselves wide from a lineout throw on the Chiefs' 10m line; the Chiefs' defensive line had marked up pretty well, and their initial line speed forced Highlanders inside centre Shaun Treeby to ignore scrum-half Aaron Smith's wraparound and head back inside rather than play wide.

In hindsight, this would prove to be a masterstroke, as Treeby ended up making another 15 or so metres upfield before a good Highlanders cleanout released quick ball. From there, Smith fired the ball wide to fly-half Lima Sopoaga, but, on first glimpses, it still looked as though the Chiefs had them covered.

Two important things happened as Sopoaga passed. Firstly, by the time he let the ball go, he was already outside Chiefs prop Ben Tameifuna, who had marked up opposite. This meant the ball was already beating the defenders. Secondly, the Highlanders' unheralded skipper and No.8, Nasi Manu, ran a wonderful decoy line that dragged Chiefs outside centre Robbie Freuen in - and kept Tameifuna interested, too.

Nasi Manu's line created a hole for Malakai Fekitoa to attack © Sky Sports / Fox Sports (Image Supplied)

The image above shows Manu's line; it also shows the hole Malakai Fekitoa is about to accelerate through as he gets the ball. Chiefs fly-half Aaron Cruden can already be been seen motioning to Freuen on his inside to stay wide on Fekitoa - which is the correct call - as Cruden's man is Ben Smith and Dwayne Sweeney is marking Patrick Osborne, who is out of shot.

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The combination of Fekitoa's explosive turn of speed - especially - and Freuen's slow reaction time meant the Highlanders centre was essentially through the hole before the Chiefs knew it. Cruden came back on him from outside, and Freuen did come back from the inside, too; but the effect of Freuen's desperation in diving back to tackle Fekitoa was to clatter into Cruden and effectively drop them both off the tackle.

This meant that Gareth Anscombe had to come up faster to try to stop Fekitoa, but the move wasn't enough to stop the new All Blacks centre getting a superb offload away to Ben Smith, who himself had come through in the space created by Cruden going back inside on Fekitoa.

The Chiefs' defensive line gifted Malakai Fekitoa the opportunity to offload © Sky Sports / Fox Sports (Image Supplied)

The second image here shows how Freuen (left of shot, headgear) and Cruden (right) have completely dropped off Fekitoa, meaning Anscombe (15, making the tackle) had to come up much quicker, even if the fullback knew it would leave his winger Dwayne Sweeney with a two-on-one situation of Ben Smith and Patrick Osborne coming at him.

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Fekitoa's offload found Smith just as Sweeney tackled the Highlanders fullback, and Smith got a pretty simple offload straight away to the now unmarked Osborne to run the ball in, avoid the late covering defenders, and make the job easier for his fly-half to make the conversion.

It really was a superb way to kick Super Rugby back into life, and it certainly had me quickly forgetting about how unenthused I had been coming into round 17.

And in hindsight, it shouldn't have been surprising that it would be a piece of Malakai Fekitoa brilliance to awaken me from my slumber. He's having a spectacular season for the Highlanders, thoroughly deserved his All Blacks debut, and he's going to be one player in particular that the New South Wales Waratahs midfield defenders will have to watch very, very carefully in Sydney this Sunday.

Patrick Osborne takes the applause, but the work was done before he got the ball © Getty Images
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