David Havili has gone from fullback to second five and with that change, he’s made it back into the All Blacks. He spoke with Kirstie Stanway.
Timing is everything and David Havili wouldn’t change a thing. Well, almost.
“I’d probably skip swallowing that toothpick though,” he admits. More on that later.
Havili’s on the Northern tour with the All Blacks, as a second five-eight, but the road to get there wasn’t an easy one for the former fullback.
He recalls a 110kg centre by the name of George Moala running at him full noise when Tasman took on Auckland in the NPC in 2014. It was a rude awakening for the 20 year old who was 89kgs dripping wet. He was getting “smashed” on a regular basis and thought “this is probably not for me in the midfield”. Coach Leon MacDonald agreed, pulling Havili aside and telling him he was too small to be a midfielder.
“So you’ve got to figure out ways you can influence the game without running over people or running through people, it’s about game IQ,” MacDonald told Havili.
Havili’s rugby education began at the local fields in Motueka, where as a five-year-old he would spend weekends with his dad and idol, Bill Havili - a 300 game Huia veteran and highly regarded Nelson Bays NPC player. Every Saturday morning he would suit up for Huia, play junior rugby, then stay at the sports club until dark. This remained his routine for a decade until moving from Motueka High School to Nelson College. The goal was for a teenage Havili to get more eyes on him, and in order to do this he was willing to play wherever he needed for the team. This was Havili’s first taste as a ‘utility’.
A utility is ‘to be useful and to perform several functions’. “I was useful but never a standout,” Havili suggests. “I made the rep teams but I was quite small, had a big heart and wanted to play footy.”
The utility role enabled him to play for Nelson Bays rep teams at first five, midfield and fullback and after high school his love of rugby and determination never waned. As an apprentice builder his goal was making the New Zealand U20’s side. He made it to all three trials but after the third, wasn’t selected. “I remember thinking ‘this is probably not for me, I need to start focusing on my career which is building, otherwise I’ll be toing and froing and won’t have anything behind me’.” The following day Havili was back at the building site on smoko when his phone rang. It was MacDonald who was also the U20s coach. “He said they have a few injuries and would I be keen on coming up? I said ‘yeah mate keen as’. Packed my bags, got to Auckland and played against Ireland and South Africa.”
This opened doors he thought had closed for good and instead of pursuing his building apprenticeship under the watchful eye of his grandfather, Havili’s rugby apprenticeship began under MacDonald at Tasman. His first lesson, how to combat 110kg midfielders snapping you in half. MacDonald taught Havili the different things to look for in defense as well as attacking structures in order to make sure he stood out in games.
“I took a whole lot from Rangi (MacDonald), my game IQ and understanding around pressure and momentum was a key thing, and I still use those tools today.”
During his own career MacDonald played 10, 13 and 15 and helped mould Havili into that ‘utility’ role. And under MacDonald’s guidance Havili shone.
The Crusaders offered the youngster a spot in their wider training squad where a young Havili was learning from a stacked backline that included Dan Carter, Ryan Crotty, Namani Nadolo and Israel Dagg. Once again injuries struck and his utility value paid off. He played 11 games in his debut season and was put on a full time contract the following year where he played mainly from the back providing cover for Dagg.
Under the tutelage of Dagg he moved from apprentice builder to one of Super Rugby’s leading backs. He was voted 2017 Crusaders players’ player of the year, and won his first Super Rugby title beating the Lions in front of 62,000 parochial fans at Ellis Park. He remembers being “pretty bloody dusty” after celebrating their successful Super Rugby campaign and was packing up his flat before heading home to Tasman for the domestic season.
Then the phone rang.
It was All Blacks manager Darren Shand. “Shandy said we need you on a flight tomorrow morning, you’re coming in to replace Jordie Barrett.” He dropped everything and told his flatmates Quinten Strange and Pete Samu to pack his room because he had somewhere to be. Ian Foster, then All Blacks assistant coach told media, “while he’s a utility he stepped into that fullback role really well, he’s played a number of positions so he brings that to the table”. He came off the bench against the Wallabies and the Barbarians and started against the French XV. “It was pretty crazy, everything I had ever dreamed of happened in the space of three months”.
It would be three years however before Havili would get another taste of test rugby. He was expecting the call, but it never came. Looking back he knows he was guilty of trying too hard. “I wanted it so bad to be back in that environment, a lot of those games are probably clouded from thinking too far ahead.” He played every position in the Crusaders backline apart from halfback on their way to three straight titles. It was a luxury for Crusaders coach Scott Robertson but didn’t seem to help Havili’s All Black aspirations.
There were dark times in the years Havili was left waiting in the dark, but Tasman provided the light. He loved being at home and was made captain of the side. The talented fullback was turning heads every week and led his province all the way to the NPC final where they won their first Premiership title in 2019. A year later they captured a second, and once again Havili was at the helm. He fended off lucrative offshore offers as he always knew he had a lot to prove in New Zealand. Though no one could have predicted what would happen next.
It was a crisp Monday morning in March 2020 when David Havili walked into the Crusaders gym at Rugby Park. The seasons were changing and he was feeling under the weather. He brushed it off but Thursday rolled around and when he touched his stomach it would hurt immediately. He thought “something’s not good here”. A day later he was on the surgeon's table fighting off a life threatening infection. He walked into Christchurch hospital for an MRI thinking he was going to walk out that night, in fact it was seven days later. The surgeon found a toothpick from a slider had pierced his bowel and caused an infection that was attacking his body. He woke up with a six inch scar and after two days in hospital where he was unable to eat and lost a lot of weight, he was allowed to return home. He fought to get back on the field as quickly as possible and played a couple of games at just 92 kilos but looking back he knows he shouldn’t have. “I’d come home and sleep for four hours then have dinner then go back to bed...it was only three and a half months after major surgery, then I broke my thumb, got home and slept for a week.”
Havili’s body had gone through the ringer, but despite all the setbacks the goal remained the same, to get back in black. Firstly, he would have to secure the Crusaders fullback spot going toe to toe with All Blacks rookie Will Jordan. The two players formed a pact of their own. “We said we will go hammer and tong and whoever is in that starting jersey we will support them 100%.”
Robertson had other ideas, switching Havili to the midfield so he and Jordan could be on the field at the same time.
Havili never saw himself as an international 12 and told Dagg exactly that, adding that he felt his best chance of getting back into the All Blacks was at fullback.
But after some hard discussions he decided to “really give it a go”.
Havili had a standout season at second five for the Crusaders and got a recall to the All Blacks he had so desperately wanted. And it seems the positional roulette has finally stopped. “I think that’s what I really needed all these years was to find a position where I could just put all my energy on and try to become the best player in that position.”
He’ll be forever indebted to Robertson for seeing something in Havili he didn’t see in himself. MacDonald saw it too, years earlier and although he’s still learning his craft in the midfield, Havili can honestly say, “ I’ve only just scratched the surface.”