Foketi gets a triple-jump on rivals for the Waratahs' no.13

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

Three tries is a fair start as far as an audition goes, but Waratahs centre Lalakai Foketi knows he has a fight on his hands to wear the sky blue no.13 in 2019.

With Curtis Rona, Adam Ashley-Cooper and even Karmichael Hunt shaping up as competition for the NSW outside centre role, Foketi got first crack in the Waratahs’ trial against the Highlanders in Alexandra last week.

The 24-year-old made the most of it, scoring a hat-trick and combining well with Hunt in the mid-field.

It was a box-ticking performance for the coach to witness but also a big confidence-booster for Foketi, who hadn’t played a minute of rugby since June last year, when he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his shin after the Tahs’ trip to Japan.

"It was my first game in eight months, the first game since June since I found out about my injury,” Foketi told RUGBY.com.au.

"There were definitely some cobwebs there that needed to be blown out. There was some cramp at the end but overall I was just really excited after a good pre-season, and just to be able to pull the jersey on and play with the boys was awesome.”

Foketi played down his three tries - "I was in the right place at the right time” - but said NSW’s form as team in the opening half of the 90-minute game was pleasing, where they built a strong lead.

With 12 Wallabies on the sidelines and Damian Fitzpatrick and John Folau also out, however, the Waratahs had an inexperienced crew on the bench and were over-run in the back half of the game.

Foketi said he was happy with his game and hoped it would stand him in good stead when it came to the selection of a run-on team for the opening Super Rugby game against the Hurricanes on February 16.

After playing for the Australian under 20s and debuting for the Rebels in 2014, Foketi played in France and New Zealand before returning to the Tahs last season.

He started the 2018 season in the no.13 jersey but Rona was given the position in round seven and never relinquished it.

The battle is back on for another year, though.

"It’s a hotly contested spot there so I will just continue doing what I can and the rest will take care of itself. I want to push for the starting spot, and if not’s me, then to keep breathing down their neck,” he said.

"There’s Curtis and throw in the likes of Karmichael Hunt and 'Swoop', Adam Ashley-Cooper, coming back. It just puts a lot of pressure on everyone. I had the opportunity to put my front foot forward and I just wanted to do the basics right. I felt like I did that well.”

Foketi said he enjoyed playing alongside Hunt after just a week training together.

"It was awesome. We kept talking throughout that first 30 and we were really comfortable with each other,” he said.

"Defensively I thought we handled it pretty well and in attack, he has been in the game a very long time and you can trust him, so you give him the ball and watch him do his thing. It was awesome. Hopefully we will get the chance to play together further down the track."

After re-joining the Waratahs from Japan, Ashley-Cooper is set to play in their trial match on Thursday night in Goulburn.