Rugby World Cup: Malakai Fekitova finds 'new purpose’ with Tonga after success with All Blacks



CNN

Malakai Fegitova may have been born and raised in the small island nation of Tonga, but as a promising youngster his destination Rugby The player must always represent a country thousands of miles across the ocean.

Long before getting the chance to travel to New Zealand, Fekitova set her sights on the tournament. All blacks – Arguably the most popular rugby team on the planet.

„Even though I was born and raised in Tonga, it was always my dream to play for New Zealand,” says Fegitova. CNN Sport.

“Every little kid out there wants to play for Australia or New Zealand. We always wanted to be like those boys on TV, we all wanted to go straight out after school or during our school years to find a chance to play rugby.

Despite being Tonga’s national sport, there are fewer opportunities to pursue a career as a rugby player in the country compared to Australia and New Zealand, where young players have clear pathways to the top of the game.

It was only after playing for Tonga in the Wellington Sevens at the age of 16 that Fegitova got a place at Wesley College in Auckland. Jonah character And many of its alumni are current and former international rugby players.

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Fekitova tries to force his way through a tackle during the Rugby Championship match between New Zealand and Argentina in 2014.

For Fekidova, this will be a launching pad for her successful career. After becoming eligible to play for New Zealand under the three-year residency rule, the hard-running, big-blocking center played 24 times for the All Blacks and was part of the team’s Rugby World Cup triumph in 2015.

„It’s an experience of a lifetime, nothing like this can compare,” Fegitova says of playing for the three-time world champion.

These days, however, he can be seen wearing Tonga’s red jersey rather than New Zealand’s iconic black suit. His decision to play club rugby in Europe prevented Fegitova from being selected for the All Blacks, but now the chance to compete at international level with the country of his birth has returned.

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The rule allows them to switch allegiance if they compete in the Olympic qualifiers for seven-a-side rugby sevens, which shrunk Fekitova to represent Tonga in Monaco two years ago.

In some cases, rugby’s eligibility rules – as the 31-year-old’s international career testifies – allow flexibility in which country a player represents. In 2017, that is declared Players must stay in a country for five years to play for that country, up from three.

Then from January 2022, A reign It was implemented so that players could transfer to their country of birth or that of their parents or grandparents unless they had played an international game for three years.

The change has proved beneficial for Tonga, as Fekitoa has named former All Blacks Vaia Fifida, George Mola and Charles Buitau in the squad for the ongoing Rugby World Cup in France.

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Charles Piutau ran with the ball for Tonga against Fiji last year.

Former Australian international Adam Coleman is set to make his debut for Tonga during the tournament, although another former Wallaby, Controversial full-back Israel FolauWithdraws due to injury.

Tonga open their World Cup campaign on Saturday against world number one Ireland, hoping to progress beyond the group stages for the first time.

„It’s different emotions and it’s a different feeling, playing for my own country where I was born and most of my family is still there,” Fegitova says.

„It’s a different drive. You always want to play New Zealand at the time, which is the best team in the world … Once you get there, you want to be different. For me it’s a new purpose.

Representing Tonga at the World Cup is the latest chapter in Fegitova’s traveling rugby career, which has so far taken her from New Zealand to club teams in France, England, Ireland and soon Italy.

„I’m still very young and I have a lot to offer to the game, especially at the highest level,” he says. „With the change of fate and everything that happened, I realized, why not give back, why not share my experience, why not represent my family?”

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The decision to represent Tonga may have been obvious to Fekidova as he had no chance of being selected for the All Blacks while playing in Europe. But the choice to move away from New Zealand in the first instance, he says, was „probably the hardest of my life” – especially as he was only 25 at the time.

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Fegitova scored for Wasps against Gloucester in March 2020.

„That’s all I know – my life based around rugby and the All Blacks in New Zealand, in your little bubble,” Fegitova explains.

„Everybody knows you get everything or anything you want, and you live your dream, and at that moment you play for the best team in the world. I thought when I retired I would make a decision to improve my life and my family and support my children.

He adds: “I look back now and to be honest I wouldn’t change a thing. I got to travel the world and meet so many great people; I met my wife, [I have] Now two beautiful children. I think this was probably the best part of the decision I made.

And Fegitova’s family will be on the sidelines in France to watch her make her first Rugby World Cup appearance in eight years.

Representing Tonga – a so-called „tier two” country that does not participate in high-profile annual tournaments such as the Rugby Championship or Six Nations – and preparing for the sport’s showpiece event comes with challenges.

Budgets are small compared to „tier one” countries, teams like Tonga are assembled from players at clubs scattered around the world, and there are few opportunities to play against the best teams in the world.

„For us, it could be like not having many rugby balls,” or deliveries not coming in for two weeks…or they say the pitch is available now, tomorrow, we’re there training and saying, 'No, it’s not available now. Someone else has taken it.’ Those little things sometimes affect the product.

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Adding to the challenge, Tonga, who can safely be called the „pool of death” at this year’s World Cup, are one of the pre-tournament favourites, Ireland, South Africa, defending champions and another favourite, Scotland, and Scotland, now ranked fifth in the world.

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Fegitova (right) won the United Rugby Championship with Munster earlier this year.

Tonga will open a game as the only higher-ranked side against Romania, although the inclusion of former All Blacks such as Fegitova only increases the chances of the Pacific island nation reaching the knockout rounds for the first time.

„It will be very difficult,” says Fekidova. „We talked about coming out and doing well for us and upsetting some teams. We obviously wanted to finish as well as we could. The playoffs will be very special for our little country and it’s doable.

For Fegitova, the World Cup will be a chance to see her career come full circle, 16 years after she first played for Tonga’s sevens team, desperate to make her way into the professional game.

Back then, Fekidova was taken to training by her cousin, initially to carry water and enjoy the atmosphere of the team. When an extra player was needed, he took part in the fitness test and beat everyone, eventually earning an invitation to play in a tournament in Samoa.

Fast forward to today and Fekitova is once again donning the Tongan jersey, this time on the game’s biggest stage. He thinks that after the rule change, all Blacks players will follow his lead by switching allegiances.

„Kiwi boys, some of them are really Tonga at heart,” he says. „Most of them were born and raised in Tonga, or their parents are there even if they play for New Zealand now.

„I’m sure at some point those boys will change. It’s a matter of when they will, but they will one day.

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