Via Stuff.co.nz, by Mark Geenty
Remember the rampaging Vaea Fifita?
The gifted athlete, all 1.96m and 111kg of him, once hurdled would-be tackler Piers Francis in an NPC match, and on All Blacks run-on debut in 2017 left fans shaking their heads when galloping to a stunning 40m solo try against Argentina.
Now the 11-test All Black – who missed last year’s Rugby World Cup squad – will don No 5 for the first time in 2020 with the task of shoring up the Hurricanes’ lineout and muscling up in the physical exchanges against the Crusaders in Wellington on Sunday.
Fifita missed the 30-20 loss to the Blues with a toe injury and returns with fellow All Black Ardie Savea as two changes to the Hurricanes’ starting lineup for the Super Rugby Aotearoa match at Sky Stadium.
After 30 minutes off the bench against the Blues in his first match in 33 weeks post knee surgery, Savea swaps with Gareth Evans to wear No 8 for the first time since the World Cup match against Namibia on October 6.
Fifita, who turned 28 on Wednesday, played his most recent test in the draw against South Africa in Wellington last July. Sunday will be his fourth start for the Hurricanes this year, the other three in No 6 as discussion continues over his most effective spot.
“He still is a six-lock cover but he’s starting at lock. The beauty about Vaea is that he can do both. For this week the best thing is to get Vaea in the engine room and get him highly involved in those lineouts,” said coach Jason Holland.
And keep him on the park. Fifita was yellow carded twice this year for high shots against the Stormers and Blues, and last season got a red card and three-week ban for a dangerous tackle on the Sharks’ Dan du Preez.
Holland insisted Fifita could return to his dynamic best with regular game time, at five or six.
“Like a lot of players he needs to nail his discipline around that tackle height, but getting a full week in and [being] happy with his role then letting him go and play is important. Then a bit of consistency from week to week.
“We’ve got no doubt he can get back to being right in that All Black frame and we’re hopeful we can help him to do that.”
Most eyes will be on Savea when the crowd favourite races out for his first start since the World Cup semifinal defeat to England when he limped away with a wrenched knee.
The Blues game was slipping away fast when Savea arrived; this week the likely No 8 in Ian Foster’s first All Blacks team of the year can stamp his mark from the start.
“He’s dying to get into it and starting him at eight will give him the ability to get his hands on the ball and get some carry for us,” Holland said.
Otherwise it’s an unchanged backline with Holland confirming fullback Jordie Barrett (shoulder) would miss a second straight match. With the bye next week, Holland and medical staff favoured the cautious approach to have Barrett ready for the Chiefs on July 5.
Jackson Garden-Bachop will steer the ship from No 10 and kick the goals, with co-captain TJ Perenara and fullback Chase Tiatia his backups, Holland said.
Perenara is again likely to shift to first-five in the final quarter, too, with Holland a fan of his combination with lively reserve halfback Jamie Booth.
But it’s up front where the Hurricanes will be under the microscope against the tough Crusaders pack missing Scott Barrett (foot) who joins his sibling on the sidelines.
The MetService forecast suggests a tough forward battle and plenty of kicking, with strong southerlies, scattered rain and a maximum of 11degC predicted. Holland has no complaints.
“The boys will look forward to the physical challenge of that. Our forwards have been going pretty well before Covid with our ball and contact areas and we want to get back to where we were there. We were a little bit off the pace at the weekend just gone.
“It’ll be who’s the smartest team mixed with that physicality who’ll get the result.”