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Redemption time

Gregor Paul

There were losers everywhere when Covid hit last year and forced the world into radical change. Few were punished more by the pandemic, though, than David Havili who went into the enforced shutdown as the form player in New Zealand.

Havili was brilliant in the first five weeks of Super Rugby. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He was the attacking spark for the Crusaders and their defensive rock.

Everyone knew he could play. He’d been around for long enough to show that, to even win three All Blacks caps in 2017. But this was different.

In those first two months of Super Rugby last year, Havili hinted that he could build towards achieving global superstar status.

He was the man with the Midas touch, throwing miracle offloads when he attacked from fullback having sliced through what had appeared to be an impregnable defensive wall.

David Havili played a handful of games for the All Blacks in 2017 but is yet to re-earn national selection. (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

The magic poured out of him and as the Crusaders surged to their customary place in the top three on the table, Havili was the man many could see becoming the All Blacks starting fullback in 2020.

New coach Ian Foster had said he was keen to persevere with the double-play-making concept. Like Steve Hansen before him, he wanted two decision-makers and two kickers either side of the ruck. He effectively wanted a fullback with genuine first-five skills and the option, at least, of having someone other than Beauden Barrettt who could fulfil that role.

Havili pushed himself into the frame when he played at No 10 for the Crusaders against the Chiefs in March.

Everyone knew he could play. He’d been around for long enough to show that, to even win three All Blacks caps in 2017. But this was different.

“Dave’s got a great kicking game and he plays well in these big ones,” said Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, who had picked Havili out of position ahead of one cap All Black Brett Cameron.

“Dave’s skill-sets are amazing and he can slot in anywhere. It’s one of his special talents he can play from 10 out to fullback. His kicking game is incredible, he’s got composure and he’s slotted right in there and quite enjoyed it.”

Whether he was going to be a starter or squad man, there was no question Havili, at that stage, was tracking back towards the All Blacks. And then it all came to a sudden stop.

Havili was scheduled to take a break for the round six match against the Reds. It was a chance for the Crusaders to rotate a few players, but Havili took himself down to training anyway for the next few days.

On the Thursday before the game against the Reds he was in the gym and told team-mate Will Jordan that he didn’t feel too well and had a sore stomach. Jordan told him he didn’t look too well either and found the doctor, who suspected appendicitis.

Havili’s non-selection in 2020 was Tasman’s game, with the utility back captaining the side to a second successive Mitre 10 Cup title. (Photo by Evan Barnes/Getty Images)

But when Havili arrived at hospital, the news was worse, he had a raging infection in his bowel and would need 20cm of it removed. 

“It was really crazy, man,” said Havili. “It was pretty lucky that I bit the bullet and didn’t carry on a couple of days, because it certainly could have got a lot worse.

“It [the infection] had leaked into my body through the bowel, that’s how the infection grew. They got in there and cut it out, and rejoined my bowel.”

It was a major operation and he lost eight kilos in the first two weeks after surgery. He wasn’t able to resume training for another six weeks and when Super Rugby did return in mid-June, as Super Rugby Aotearoa, Havili was on the start-line, but he wasn’t the same player.

The operation had robbed him of conditioning and bulk and it had been a long and arduous recovery. He was tough enough to make it back, but not with the same confidence or form and from being the star of the show in the early rounds, he was being used predominantly off the bench.

Whether he was going to be a starter or squad man, there was no question Havili, at that stage, was tracking back towards the All Blacks. And then it all came to a sudden stop.

There was no return to the All Blacks and instead, he had to watch as his young friend Jordan jumped ahead of him and wowed the world with his two tries against the Pumas in the last test of the year.

Havili, though, is ready to resume his ascent to the summit again in 2021. He re-signed with the Crusaders late last year to stay with the club until 2023, saying: “I didn’t want to have any regrets when I finish playing. I just wanted to give myself every opportunity to get the most out of New Zealand rugby. I think I have got a lot more to add.

“I had some pretty good offers in Japan, but I’m still pretty young and I have still got higher aspirations. I had to take a couple of weeks to decide on what I really wanted to do.

“I want to get back into that All Blacks jersey and I couldn’t do that overseas.”

Commitment made, the question in 2021 is how he will be used by the Crusaders, who will be missing George Bridge and Braydon Ennor for most of the campaign.

There’s plenty of competition for places in the Crusaders backline with Scott Robertson able to select from a number of All Blacks including Will Jordan, David Havili, Sevu Reece and Richie Mo’unga. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Havili’s versatility may see him bounce between midfield and fullback, slotting in where coach Robertson feels he needs him on any given week.

He could form a bold and enterprising back three with Joran and Sevu Reece on the wings or just as easily build a solid partnership with Jack Goodhue at 12 and Havili at centre.

Bouncing around the backline is not ideal and some players would struggle with the not knowing and having to adapt week to week. But not Havili.

He seems to thrive on the uncertainty of where he might play week to week and far from being detrimental to his test aspirations, Havili’s versatility says Robertson is his attraction.

“He’s one of those guys you take to a Rugby World Cup. If it’s 31 players for the next World Cup, you’ve got to fit multi-talented, multi-positional players in. He can long-range kick as well. He’s smart, has great leadership and he’s tough. Real tough.”

Havili was a victim of Covid last year but it feels like 2021 might be his time.

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