Rugby: Pakalani turns Super rugby dream into reality

Atieli Pakalani
Atieli Pakalani
When his mind wandered during classes at Tamaki College, Atieli Pakalani used to day dream of playing Super rugby for the Blues.

Now he hopes to give his old helping hand Joe Rokocoko nightmares at Eden Park on Saturday night.

The All Blacks veteran took Pakalani under his wing when the Tongan made his provincial debut in 2009 despite never having played a senior club game -- and he must be a decent mentor considering the rookie was named as Auckland's most promising NPC player that season.

Pakalani's performances in his debut year and in 2010 were also recognised by the NSW Waratahs coaching staff and after a relatively easy pursuit they succeeded in coaxing the 21-year-old Sydney wing to join their army of Tongan recruits.

Pakalani has found a home away from home in another harbour city -- his cousin Sekope Kepu anchors the Waratahs front row at tight head, he flats with lock Sitaleki Timani.

The Pacific Island connection doesn't end there -- Wallabies hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau is also of Tongan extraction; Australian No 8 Wycliff Palu comes from the same village as Pakalani's old man.

"When I heard there were heaps of Tongan boys here that helped," he told NZPA.

Pakalani has not only found himself in a familiar environment, it is also a challenging one -- the Waratahs already boasted an all-international back three before Tonga's captain at the 2009 under-20 World Cup signed up.

Kurtley Beale, Lachlan Turner and Drew Mitchell are automatic selections so Pakalani realised he would be on the fringes, ironically the reason he decided to leave Auckland after earning 18 caps.

"There's heaps of wingers in Auckland. I probably wouldn't be in the Blues for another two years so I thought I'd take the opportunity to come here. It was nice to be wanted," he explained.

Pakalani had already exceeded expectations -- he scored a runaway try on debut against the Crusaders in Nelson when coming off the bench during the seven-time champion's emotional return to action after the Christchurch earthquake.

"I never thought I'd get the chance. I just went to training hoping for an opportunity," he said.

Pakalani's starting debut against the Cheetahs was hardly as memorable -- the Waratahs were booed off their pitch -- but they won the fans over by beating the Chiefs 23-16 when returning to the Sydney Football Stadium in round seven.

The speedster only started because Berrick Barnes was recovering from concussion and Beale moved to pivot and celebrated his good fortune by scything past Sitiveni Sivivatu to score in the fourth minute.

He also held his own defensively against the dangerous back three despite weighing in at a slender 88kg - Pakalani's alias as the "Tongan Hitman" shows his new teammates at least have a sense of humour.

Pakalani described his job against Sivivatu as "enjoyable" and he was hoping for a repeat performance against Rokocoko.

"Joe was my hero when I was growing up. In my first year of NPC he was on the other wing and I learned a lot from him. Hopefully I'll get a go against him."

Even if Barnes travels to Auckland and the Waratahs optimum back three is restored Pakalani could still feature on the bench - his ability to also cover fullback means he has condemned former All Black Soseni Anesi to division two club rugby.

Tamaki College's first Super rugby representative, Pakalani said he had found the transition to Super rugby smooth.

"I just have to concentrate on my decision making really, and the guys help me out a lot."

However, he didn't require any help with one move in his career - Pakalani will not be returning to Eden Park on September 9 when the All Blacks open the World Cup against Tonga.

He has been approached by Tongan officials but does not want to jeopardise his chances of returning to the Waratahs in 2012 - the Wallabies are his international team of choice.

"If I go play for Tonga in the World Cup it would be hard for me to come back to Super 15. It's too early for me, I want to stay at the Waratahs."

He has also played his last game for Auckland - rather than return for the ITM Cup he will turn out for Randwick in the Sydney club competition.

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