Waisake Naholo has a point to prove with the All Blacks, writes MARC HINTON.
As Steve Hansen sidled over to Waisake Naholo on the Eden Park pitch just moments after the opening Test of the season against Wales had concluded, the All Blacks coach thrust out a meaty paw and asked his talented young wing how he had enjoyed the occasion. The response, it turned out, could have turned the air blue.
That said a lot about how desperate Naholo was to prove himself a worthy All Black, for this is a young man as polite and quietly spoken as you get in the modern era. For him to cuss himself out and express his frustration in such colourful terms, he must have been really exasperated. It also said a lot about his standards, after he graced an entertaining night with two quality tries and a strong finish to more than make up for some first-half blemishes.
Later Hansen would relate the exchange, and attempt to explain it.
‘We talked out on the field, and I won’t say what he said about his first half because you can’t write it. But I told him, “Son, the pleasing thing is you came through the other side of it”. That takes a lot of mental effort particularly. We know he’s talented, and he hurt them even in the first half when he scored a lovely try.
‘When you try too hard, sometimes you make mistakes, and he’s been desperate to show us all just how good a player he is. The more time he spends in the jersey, the more we’ll see for ourselves he’s a quality player.’
Hansen, it seems, is determined to give him that opportunity. He could easily have subbed the big wing on the back of that opening 40, when dropped balls and judgement errors blighted his effort, which included a crisply taken try to finish a Ben Smith breakout. But instead the coach yanked off the more experienced Julian Savea just after half-time, to allow for the introduction of supersub Beauden Barrett, and let Naholo stay on the field and play through his wobbles.
It was a masterstroke. Naholo grew more and more comfortable as the game wore on, and by its end he had doubled his try tally and more than made up for his early fumbles.
‘He’ll certainly understand that you can come back, and that’s the big thing,’ added Hansen. ‘We all make mistakes − it’s how you deal with those mistakes, that’s the key. He came through it.’
Certainly it was a more settled Naholo who ran out in Wellington a week later, adding another five-pointer to make his early tally four in five Tests. Hansen had clearly seen enough by then, employing his Fijian-born strike force as bench cover for the final Test against the Welsh indoors in Dunedin. The fact that he came on to play a solid 31 minutes at outside centre offered a hint of the skill package that, according to Highlanders assistant and former All Blacks flyhalf Tony Brown, makes Naholo ‘one of the best players in the world’.
‘His skills are just phenomenal,’ explains Brown. ‘He can kick as well as our first-fives [flyhalves] punting wise, and his passing skills are as good as our inside backs too. And then his ability to dominate guys in contact or beat them on the outside makes him one of the most dangerous players in the world.’
It certainly hasn’t been a seamless transition to top rugby for the 25-year-old Naholo, who’s already had to clear a few hurdles. He had success in the provincial arena with Taranaki and for the New Zealand Sevens team (though he was denied the chance to compete at the Commonwealth Games in 2014 because he still held a Fijian passport), but was seldom used by the Blues, his initial Super Rugby franchise, and eventually cut loose.
Luckily the Highlanders recognised a good thing when they saw one, and welcomed him on board for 2015 when a record haul of 13 tries helped the southern franchise to its inaugural title. Hansen was suitably impressed and, after Naholo was able to back out of a deal with Clermont, called him up for his initial Test squad. The flying wing scored a try on debut against Argentina in Christchurch, and also fractured a leg, seemingly ending his run in the black jersey almost before it had begun.
But then a fairytale of sorts played out. Naholo set the World Cup as his goal and started on a long-term rehab plan with that in mind. He even headed to his home village in Fiji to undergo traditional treatment, which involved his fractured leg being wrapped in leaves. What did he have to lose?
Remarkably, he regained just enough fitness to be whistled in as a shock selection for the World Cup, though he played just the Georgia and Tonga pool games before it became clear he wasn’t at the level required for the business end of the tournament.
Then came 2016 and, wouldn’t you know it, another leg fracture in the opening week of Super Rugby. It was as though he was being tested. Sent on a sort of rugby version of the 12 Labours of Hercules. Back he went to the rehab ward, and back he came again, returning to action in just enough time to prove his readiness for the June Tests.
For Naholo it’s always been about proving he belongs at the higher levels of this tough sport.
‘At the Blues I had two games and I wanted more. I was starting to improve and getting a feel for what Super Rugby was like. It was disappointing to get cut,’ he says. ‘Even when I went down to the Highlanders I wasn’t sure if I’d be playing. That’s why we started looking overseas. We never thought I was going to make the All Blacks at that stage after getting cut from the Blues … nothing was really working out.’
Naholo admits the rejections played havoc with his swag.
‘I’ve always doubted myself; never had great confidence. Even now sometimes I have to smack myself in the face to realise I haven’t got to this stage for no reason and I’ve got to keep backing myself. I still feel really nervous but not as bad as last year when I’d see the coaches walk by and get really scared. I had to learn that everyone is approachable and if you need anything you just have to ask.’
But Hansen, as good a judge as there is in the game, has a fair idea what’s in store.
‘He’s a very capable young man, highly intelligent and a talented athlete. He just needs some more time in the saddle … We’ll take our time with him, and when he’s ready we’ll see a lot more of the good stuff than the bad.’
– This article first appeared in the August 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine