Fijian trio gelling for Highlanders

Try-scorer Timoci Tavatavanawai in action for the Highlanders against the Chiefs in Hamilton on...
Timoci Tavatavanawai in action for the Highlanders against the Chiefs in Hamilton. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Timoci Tavatavanawai feels right at home in the Highlanders backline.

The Highlanders back three have a special connection this season, with wingers Tavatavanawai and Jona Nareki hailing from Fiji, and New Zealand-born Fijian Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens at fullback.

While Tavatavanawai might be going through a six-month kava layoff, the blockbusting winger has found plenty of other ways to connect with his electric backline.

"We just talk to each other, which is good to have those Fijians [who] understand each other really well with body language and the language we have," Tavatavanawai said.

Despite most recently being known for his breakout seasons with Tasman and Moana Pasifika, Tavatavanawai has a long-standing connection to Dunedin.

Known to his friends as "Jim", Tavatavanawai trained with the Highlanders as an injury cover in 2021 and suited up for Southern during the club season.

He remembered his season with Southern fondly, receiving the donated meat packs with open arms, and one of his funniest memories came when he had to play in division two and felt "sorry for the boys".

"It was really fun playing for the mighty Magpies."

The 26-year-old returned to Dunedin this year on a two-year deal with the Highlanders, and said it was a tough decision to leave Moana Pasifika.

But he felt he left their No 14 jersey in a good spot and the opportunity to learn in the Highlanders environment was too good to pass up.

He has made quite the impression in their opening six games, winning five jackal turnovers, the most of any back and the second-most of any player overall.

His work under the high ball had been valuable, too, a skill he credited to learning under Highlanders great Ben Smith.

"He taught us a lot ... just learn from the best," Tavatavanawai said.

Growing up as a centre also showed Tavatavanawai’s worth when he shifted into the middle last week when Tanielu Tele’a was red carded, and having a second position in his "back pocket" was handy.

Moving to Dunedin, Tavatavanawai’s focus was on earning his spot for the Highlanders every week, and now he had ticked that off, his next goal was to either represent the All Blacks or Fiji.

Right now, his focus was on the game against the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium tonight, and breaking an 18-game losing streak against New Zealand teams.

"We just connect as a team, we build as a team, we trust each other.

"That’s how we’re going to win the game. Win those small moments, and if we win those moments then we’ll probably win the game."

The Hurricanes have set the standard this season and are unbeaten in their opening five games, and hold a four-point lead at the top of the table.

It is their second-best start to a season — they won seven on the trot in 2015, when the Highlanders triumphed in the end to win their first, and only, Super Rugby title.

But the Hurricanes have had the better of the match-up in recent years. They have won 11 of their past 13 games against the Highlanders, including the last five in a row.

Hurricanes flanker Peter Lakai has been unstoppable this season.

He has made dominant contact on 33 carries, more than any other player in the competition, and has crossed the gainline on 42 carries, the second-most of any player in the campaign.

Super Rugby

FBS, 7.05pm

Highlanders: Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai, Jonah Lowe, Sam Gilbert, Jona Nareki, Rhys Patchell, Folau Fakatava, Tom Sanders, Billy Harmon (captain), Sean Withy, Max Hicks, Fabian Holland, Saula Ma’u, Henry Bell, Ethan de Groot. Reserves: Jack Taylor, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Rohan Wingham, Oliver Haig, Nikora Broughton, James Arscott, Ajay Faleafaga, Josh Timu.

Hurricanes: Ruben Love, Josh Moorby, Billy Proctor,  Jordie Barrett, Kini Naholo, Brett Cameron, Cam Roigard, Brayden Iose, Peter Lakai, Brad Shields (captain), Isaia Walker-Leawere, Caleb Delany, Tyrel Lomax, Asafo Aumua, Xavier Numia. Reserves: James O’Reilly, Pouri Rakete-Stones, Pasilio Tosi, Justin Sangster, Du’Plessis Kirifi, TJ Perenara, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Ngane Punivai.