For the fastest player in the 2013 Blues squad, Frank Halai has been relatively slow to burst onto the Super Rugby scene.
The Tongan speedster plied his trade at provincial level for Counties-Manukau and Waikato, and raised some eyebrows as he joined the New Zealand Sevens side for two years, but at 24-years-old Halai has only just made his Super Rugby debut.
“I liked playing for Titch but I have looked forward to this level of rugby,” Halai said.
Halai certainly looked at home as this level last week as he scored two tries on debut in a fine individual performance against the Hurricanes.
In fact it was Halai who produced the match-turning moment. Desperately racing back to his goal line to deny Julian Savea a try, Halai was sin-binned for deliberately batting the ball into the in-goal, received a yellow card for his trouble and conceded a penalty try.
It could have spelled the beginning of end for the Blues as they went behind on the scoreboard and down a man, but Halai fought desperately upon his return to the pitch to score the match-defining try.
“I came back, worked harder and really tried to make it up to the team,” Halai said.
It’s that determination to work hard and keep getting better that has seen the best emerge in Halai.
He’s added muscle to his already large frame, reduced his skin folds, scored a personal best in his fitness tests and is clocking the same times over 10 metre sprints that he was when he was much lighter.
Having a world class winger in Blues head coach Sir John Kirwan has also helped with Halai’s development.
“JK just told me to go out there and do my thing, carry the ball hard, keep the work rate up and keep playing hard.”
However as much as Kirwan has helped tutor him in the intricacies of wing play, Halai conceded the new Blues coach was never someone he followed as a child.
Indeed the 1.95m, 105kg Halai who grew up in a small village in Tonga was not really interested in rugby union until he moved to Wesley College in the fifth form, the school of another Tongan powerhouse in winger Jonah Lomu.
Halai grew up following rugby league and used his natural ability to dominate the athletics circuit.
He won Counties-Manukau titles at high-jump, long-jump and triple-jump and was supposed to compete for New Zealand at a competition meet in Australia.
But Halai flagged the trip across the Tasman and athletics took a back seat as rugby began to play a more prominent role in his life, where his height, jumping ability and athleticism saw him shoulder tapped for lock.
“In my first game they put me at lock first and I didn’t know what to do there. I couldn’t catch the ball at the lineout so they put me on the wing and from there on I just played wing,” Halai said.
The shift out wide clearly paid dividends as he went from strength to strength, using his deceptive shift of pace and large frame to either beat players on the outside or simply run over the top of them.
It was when Kirwan watched Halai playing for the New Zealand Sevens side that he saw something special in him.
“I spoke to Gordon Tietjens and he’s one of the guys I speak to often about outside backs, particularly guys that have gone through his regime,” Kirwan said.
“He said ‘Frank is the Tongan with the biggest motor I’ve ever seen’ so that’s just Titch’s way of saying this guy can run. So that gave me the initial interest and I started watching him and saw his attacking potential and size and thought he would be perfect for us.”
So far Halai has lived up to that expectation, but he knows it was just one game and he’s got to keep working hard to improve.
“It’s a great environment here and it was special to be a part of the win last week but we’ve got to keep working harder. We’ve got a team saying ‘better never stops’ so we need to keep working ahead of the game against the Crusaders.”