On Saturday night, Folau Fakatava’s bet on himself as a teenager will get his biggest comeback yet.
Having become one of the most eye-catching players in world rugby, Fakatava will don the black jersey for the first time when he comes off the bench in the All Blacks’ second Test against Ireland at his new home of Dunedin.
Fakatava came to New Zealand just over five years ago from Tonga on a scholarship to Hastings’ Boys High.
Mark Ozich, who coached Fakatava both at school and at the NPC, remembered the energetic half-back’s arrival.
“The first day I walked in, I thought, ‘Who is this kid?’
“He was out the door… the number of times I walked into the locker room at lunchtime, he was cutting guys’ hair to make some extra cash.”
Ozich said he already had a lot of respect for Fakatava.
“It’s hard to imagine, at 15, leaving everything you know, leaving home, going to another country, another language with just the conviction and the desire to become an All Black.”
Despite feeling homesick, a local Tongan family, the school and then the Hawke’s Bay Rugby Union took Fakatava under their wing.
But the young star was also showing signs of his champion heart.
“I think the first year we bought a dozen pairs of boots for him because he just gave them to other kids in the community,” Ozich said.
“He had nothing.”
As his talents continued to flourish, Magpies and Highlanders skipper Ash Dixon ensured Fakatava headed south for Super Rugby in 2019, convincing the then Highlanders manager, Aaron Mauger, to sign it.
“I could see the potential in this kid,” Dixon said.
“He just needed some feeding, I guess, and a little help. [Aaron and I] were talking and talking and talking – he hadn’t seen him much and I said, ‘You have to trust me and you have to sign this guy’.
The decision paid off, with Fakatava thriving in the southern environment with All Blacks great Aaron Smith on board as a mentor.
In return, the Highlanders gained another confident half-back – as did the All Blacks.
“He will always support himself and speak out and I think the All Blacks will give him the keys to do that,” Dixon said.
From Nuku’alofa to North Dunedin via Hastings, Folau Fakatava is making a dream Saturday in his new home.
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