Naholo Returns In Style
If anyone deserved a triumphant return to Super Rugby like this, Waisake Naholo surely did. Over the last 12 months the supercharged Highlanders wing has been waging a dandy of a battle with Lady Luck, and getting his butt kicked from here to kingdom come.
So last Saturday’s two-try starring role in a doozey of a Highlanders upset 26-13 victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton is hopefully a sign that the Fijianborn All Black’s fortune has finally turned. Goodness knows he deserves it.
Naholo, of course, had a brilliant Super Rugby season last year, running in a competition-leading 13 tries in the Landers’ charge to their inaugural title, was rightfully promoted to the All Blacks and then fractured his leg in his first test in the most innocuous of circumstances. Somehow he made it to the World Cup, with either a miracle witch-doctor cure, or just fast natural healing (depending on which tale you read, and believed). But by then he was playing a hopeless game of catchup against a rival (Nehe Milner-Skudder) who had made the most of his unexpected opportunity on the right wing. He was a bit-part player only in England, though no doubt enjoyed his vantage point for the All Blacks’ historymaking achievements. He would have been full of hope, then, when the new season rolled around, armed with the knowledge that Steve Hansen rated him highly enough to take him to England when all logic suggested it was an unnecessary gamble. Then, wouldn’t you know it, fate slapped him in his smiley face once again when he re-fractured the same leg in the Highlanders’ first game against the Blues, and missed the next eight matches healing and rehabbing the problem appendage. It’s a routine he now has down pat. Which brought us to last Saturday at a packed stadium in Hamilton, with the Chiefs riding a seven-game winning streak and picked by all and sundry to despatch a wobbling Highlanders outfit with a degree of ease. Phooey. Not with Nahalo back on the right wing, and with the Highlanders back in their great underdog mode sitting favourites on their backsides. In a game featuring an array of All Black contenders and quality New Zealand players in general, Naholo quite simply grabbed the occasion by the scruff of the neck and made it his own. Where a number of others struggled to unleash their best stuff, the big wing was all class as the Highlanders brought up their seventh victory of the season, and surged back into the mix at the top of a Kiwi conference as crowded as the Auckland motorway at rush-hour.
He scored two crisply taken tries, and looked sharp in almost all he did. He was also strong over the ball at the ruck, and was only just denied a hattrick at the finish by a desperation tackle in the corner which left him a little the worse for wear. He will no doubt need to roll out one or two more like this before the June break, but assuredly he is well on the way to answering the call in the problematic No 14 position. “He’s had that presence at training − the boys get a bit excited when they see the ball in his hands,” said a delighted Highlanders skipper Ben Smith afterwards. “It’s great to have him back and great to see him out playing rugby.”
Waisake Naholo scores a try against Chiefs in Hamilton last Saturday.