The Game Changer

Dylan Cleaver
Written by
Dylan Cleaver

Author short introduction. Three to five lines of brief description.

Folau Fakatava is one of the most intriguing All Black prospects in recent years. His serendipitous origin story adds another layer to his rapid rise, writes Dylan Cleaver.

Folau Fakatava of the Highlanders reacts during the round one Super Rugby Aotearoa match between the Highlanders and the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on February 26, 2021, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)
Folau Fakatava of the Highlanders reacts during the round one Super Rugby Aotearoa match between the Highlanders and the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on February 26, 2021, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

If you think marking your debut by being part of an All Black side beaten on home soil by Ireland for the first time is going to be a heavy cross to bear for the country’s newest test halfback, you don’t know a lot about Folau Fakatava.

The trajectory of Fakatava’s career from wide-eyed Tongan kid to All Blacks halfback has not always been upwards.

Far from it.

Fakatava, 22, who made his debut off the bench in the second test against Ireland this month, has already dealt with the sort of adversity most of us born into comfortable lives on these shores never have to deal with.

And although his story is born and made in Tonga, it was the struggles of a traditional single-sex school in New Zealand and the ambition of an Englishman that enabled a line to be drawn from Nuku’alofa to Dunedin.

“We had a few tough years over a period of time,” says Jack Wiggins, now a coach with the San Diego Legion in Major League Rugby, but then trying to bring Hastings Boys’ High School up to respectability in the Super 8 competition as its director of rugby.

“We settled on a rebuilding process to better our rugby, thinking the benefits would flow on through the school. Part of that rebuilding was improving our recruitment locally. That enabled us to start an elite programme.”

Once that programme was up and running, Hastings turned their eye overseas, to Fiji and Tonga specifically. Wiggins, who was at HBHS from 2012 to the end of 2016, started chatting to the coach of Tonga College over the internet and Viliami Afu Kaipouli, now with Honda Heat in the Japan Top League arrived as a blockbusting backrower, and Sanaila Waqa, who has just made his debut for Japan, from Naitasiri in Fiji.

As it happened, just as HBHS was establishing itself as one of the best school programmes in the country, Wiggins was preparing for a move back home to Wasps.

Before he left, Kaipouli had a piece of advice.

“He said, ‘You’ve got to get this kid, this halfback, he’s only 16 but he’s already the best player at school in Tonga right now’.”

The player was Fakatava.

Continue this story in our Aug/Sep  issue.

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Dylan Cleaver
Written by
Dylan Cleaver

Dylan Cleaver has been immersed in sports journalism since 1996, covering three Olympic Games, various world cups and two pigeon races. He has won more than 30 national journalism awards. He is the founder of the sports newsletter The Bounce – find it at dylancleaver.substack.com.

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