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Andrew Makalio hitting his straps at Crusaders

Crusaders hooker Andrew Makalio steps through the tackle of Rob Thompson, while Ben Smith (right) appears to be wondering if his life insurance policy is up to date.
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Crusaders hooker Andrew Makalio steps through the tackle of Rob Thompson, while Ben Smith (right) appears to be wondering if his life insurance policy is up to date.

Crusaders hooker Andrew Makalio, another talented player to drift through the Auckland and Blues' recruitment net, is tipped to start against his hometown team in Christchurch on Saturday night.

So far, so good. Although the angle of this story maybe isn't as predictable as some may think.

It doesn't involve the Christchurch-based Super Rugby powerhouse organisation receiving a tip-off from a diligent talent scout in Auckland recommending that the big front rower with the soft hands and sharp acceleration be offered a contract.

Andrew Makalio (fourth from right) visited Christchurch Men's Prison with some Crusaders team-mates earlier this year.
IAIN MCGREGOR/STUFF
Andrew Makalio (fourth from right) visited Christchurch Men's Prison with some Crusaders team-mates earlier this year.

Instead it was Makalio who turned up the heat on his rugby career. Unable to crack the Auckland team he heeded the advice of an old mentor, Josh Syms, who suggested the front rower shift south to play for Wairarapa Bush in the Heartland Championship in 2015.

Makalio, now 26, proved he was no roughie. He ended the season as Wairarapa Bush's top try scorer with eight, and would have played for the New Zealand Heartland team if not ruled ineligible as a loan player.

Andrew Makalio celebrates scoring a try against the Rebels earlier in the season.
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Andrew Makalio celebrates scoring a try against the Rebels earlier in the season.
 

The further south Makalio travelled, the luckier he got. Next stop was Marlborough.

"I left my job in Auckland and moved to Blenheim, working in the vineyards. It was labour work, which was good for me and I enjoyed it," Makalio told Stuff recently. "But the only reason I enjoyed it was because things were coming my way. Now I feel blessed to be here."

Tasman coach Leon MacDonald blooded Makalio in the Mitre 10 Cup in 2016 and he totalled 11 appearances, including a start in the final against Canterbury. Last year Makalio debuted for the Crusaders and recently had his contracted extended through to the end of the 2019 season.

"I was doing carpentry in Auckland with my old man and also worked as a teacher's aide," Makalio said. "The plan when I was at school, when I started playing in under-15s - which everyone says was pretty late - was to be a professional rugby player.

"I didn't play anything before the under-15s. I just got into it through my church. My old man wasn't a fan of league, so he wouldn't let me play it. His mindset was pretty good. He pushed me to the limits - that if I couldn't make it in Auckland rugby, I couldn't make it anywhere else.

"But I had to take a gamble."

The decision to roll the dice and leave Auckland has clearly proved worthwhile. Makalio, who in recent seasons trimmed his weight from 135kg to 128kg, is now the Crusaders second-string hooker behind All Black Codie Taylor because Ben Funnell suffered a serious knee injury.

Last year Makalio made five appearances as a substitute. This season he has clocked up nine appearances, with two in the starter's jersey. He was in the run-on side when the Crusaders beat the Highlanders 45-22 last Saturday night and with Taylor expected to be spelled this weekend, Makalio should start against the Blues for the final round-robin match at AMI Stadium.

After attending Onehunga High School in Auckland, Makalio returned to his alma mater to do some work as a teacher's aide. Recently when a group of  Crusaders players visited Christchurch Prison and spoke to inmates at a youth unit, Makalio dipped into his teaching skills. He was vocal in his encouragement during a game of touch inside the barbed wire enclosure and also offered some advice during a Q & A session.

"I loved it, it was real good," he said in reference to the visit.

"There were a few people that I could compare to in that prison area, that I could help. Because it was sort of what helps me in the teacher aide area, looking after kids that are not on the right path."