Malakai Fekitoa finding his stride

Don't fret about Malakai Fekitoa's form issues, the enigmatic Highlanders midfielder certainly isn't.

In fact, the 24-year-old, 23-test centre has a good feeling about what lies around the corner, both for himself and the southern franchise that on Saturday night scraped out a much-needed first victory of the Super Rugby season on Eden Park against the Blues.

Fekitoa scored the only try in that 16-12 Highlanders victory, following back-to-back defeats to the Chiefs and Crusaders at home, and put in a handy night's work on defence. Sure he grassed one ball with the line open, and saw one or two other half-chances elude him, but he remains steadfast that the work he's putting into his game will soon be rewarded by performances on the field.

"I'm confident I'm getting back there," Fekitoa said of his much-talked-about form. "On defence I'm happy, especially from where I've been, looking back at my last few years. I'm making better reads now than when I first started playing at this level.

"Defensively I feel good, I'm confident, and I feel like I'm getting better every week."

And the attacking side of his game?

"I've found a few ways to improve," he replies, just a little cryptically. "I can't say much about it, but a few people have helped me out with footwork and certain things like slowing down to make decisions. It's about building from now on and hopefully getting better."

Some turn-back-the-clock, tackle-busting feats would be timely, too, for a player who has not been able to capture his best stuff since the 2015 championship-winning campaign with the Highlanders.

Really, last year presented the perfect chance for the quietly spoken Aucklander to nail down the No 13 All Black jersey in the post-Conrad Smith era, but by season's end he had ceded his spot there to Chiefs' find of the season Anton Lienert-Brown.

It's an interesting juncture for Fekitoa. He is in the final year of his contract with both the Highlanders and New Zealand Rugby, and has already indicated cashed-up offshore clubs have been "knocking at the door". He has given mixed signals about his intentions, but vows to do what's best for him and his family.

Of course, the Highlanders would love to keep him. The All Blacks too. Just how much will likely be revealed around the negotiating table, but it's fair to say some commanding form for the southern franchise and a spot in Steve Hansen's national squad to face the British and Irish Lions mid-year would go a long way to keeping him where he is.

It's likely he will need it, with a logjam of midfield contenders around, including Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, the soon-to-return Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, George Moala and Matt Proctor.

Fekitoa said Saturday night's hard-fought victory over the Blues, where the Highlanders survived the injury defections of All Blacks Waisake Naholo and Lima Sopoaga to grind out the result, was just what the doctor ordered for the southerners.

"It's huge. You could tell when the [final] whistle went everyone was on their feet celebrating. It was really cool to get that out of the way and I think we needed it more than them. We had a plan and we stuck to it."

Clearly the injury-ravaged Highlanders are still battling for their best form, but their character remains high and was a big part of the grind-out win on Eden Park.

"It's massive, it's what defines us a team," added Fekitoa. "Whoever goes down there are always people stepping up to fill in the role. As a team we're all about working together and having fun.

"We take this, we learn and hopefully we get better. That's what we're all about."

It does not getting any easier for the Highlanders this week as Tony Brown's patched-up group head to the Hurricanes on Saturday night for a fourth straight Kiwi derby.

For Fekitoa the glass is definitely half-full on that front: "I think we're lucky to have that [draw], get them out of the way, test ourselves and see where we're at. Then hopefully we go on and do better things from here." 


Photo: Getty Images/DAVE ROWLAND (Midfielder Malakai Fekitoa is off contract this year and yet to decide on his next move).