Western Force hooker Feleti Kaitu'u is returning to Australia full of confidence after a valuable stint with NPC club Tasman.
The three-time Wallaby sought out the Makos after a disruptive 2023, with his lone start for the Force coming in their opening-round win over the Melbourne Rebels, stuck behind Wallaby Folau Fainga'a and the returning Tom Horton as he dealt with a hamstring injury.
The Makos have quickly established themselves as a breeding ground for Super Rugby talent, with 24 players selected in squads for 2024. It's become commonplace for players to throw up the 'fin when they score as the likes of Levi Aumua, Will Jordan, David Havili and Timoci Tavatavanawai dominate the competition
Kaitu'u thrived in the environment, eventually named Mako Rookie of the Year, describing the 'family' connection of the club.
“I just got to the end of the (Super Rugby) season and didn’t really get too many minutes under my belt so I explored my options and thankfully the Force agreed to let me go offshore and Tasman was willing to give me an opportunity and it was an awesome experience,” he said to Rugby.com.au.
“…It’s very tribal. A lot of boys that play for the NPC teams are from those provinces. You’re not someone from outside the area who’s just putting a jersey on, you’re literally born and bred from those parts.
“There’s guys there like Ethan Blackadder who grew up watching and wanting to play for the Tasman Mako before wanting to become a Crusader and All Black. They wanted to don that Tasman Mako jersey.
“It was a really good culture over there. Everyone is really good mates like it’s almost beyond mates, you are actually family. I know a lot of people and teams say that but I feel like there’s a real authenticity about it.”
The experience reinforced the need for a third-tier competition in Kaitu'u's mind. His ten starts in the NPC, including in the quarter-final defeat, was more than he managed for the Force in 2022 and '23.
“Compared to Australia, a lot of the guys in my team were seasoned Crusaders and Chiefs mainly from that region and they basically get to play all of Super Rugby and then an extra 13-14 games,” he added.
“I think that experience and exposure…you can train all you want but they’re almost getting double the exposure to get better.”
Fainga'a's departure to Claremont leaves Kaitu'u and Horton in a two-horse race for the starting hooker job.
Both have seen the benefits of overseas Rugby, with Horton linking up with Leicester at the start of the year. Kaitu'u was eager to foster a competitive but healthy relationship.
“There’s solid competition over here with the likes of ‘Horto’ (Tom Horton) who played really well last year and deserved his spot and then we’ve got some talented young kids coming through so I’ve got my work cut out for me but I’ll be pushing them just as hard,” he believes.
“The other takeaway from New Zealand was guys are gunning for the same spots but they’re also helping, guiding and supporting each other to be the best each can be.
“If you're pushing your competition to be better, that’s going to elevate what you’re doing as well.”