Rugby Championship

Naholo crashes through All Blacks door

2015-06-21 10:02
Waisake Naholo of the Highlanders celebrates his try with team-mate Patrick Osborne (Getty Images)

Wellington - What's better than having a Julian Savea in your squad during a Rugby World Cup year? Two Julian Saveas, according to All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who is set to blood another explosive wing in the form of Waisake Naholo.

Hansen picked Fiji-born juggernaut Naholo in his extended 41-man roster for warm-up Tests before the World Cup and could throw him into the fray in a one-off match against Samoa next month.

Savea may boast an extra three inches and 10kg on Naholo, but both the 24-year-olds share breath-taking pace, line-breaking power and a keen nose for a try.

"I'm not sure he brings what we don't have, but what he does do is add to what we have got," Hansen said at the squad's naming in Auckland on Sunday.

"He is a big man, another Julian Savea-sized type man. He brings pace, he's good on his feet, he's good in the air and he scores lots of tries."

Opposition coaches already have their hands full dealing with Savea, who has an extraordinary 30 tries from his 33 Tests.

They may soon be scouring the Internet for video of Naholo, who has proved a revelation in his first year of Super Rugby at the Highlanders.

They're unlikely to be overwhelmed by the available footage.

Naholo was virtually unknown even in New Zealand before crossing to the South Island province after a dominant season with Taranaki in the second-tier provincial championship.

He couldn't crack a Super Rugby game at the lowly Blues under now-departed coach John Kirwan, but his Taranaki form was good enough for the Highlanders to swoop and leave the Blues lamenting the one that got away.

Naholo's form has also been noted off-shore, with French side Clermont signing him to a two-year deal, though New Zealand Rugby are confident he will put country before club.

If Hansen had any gnawing doubts about Naholo's place, they might have been put to bed with the winger's two-try effort on Saturday at home in Dunedin.

That drove the Highlanders to victory over a classy Chiefs side and into their first Super Rugby semi-final in 13 years.

For Naholo, it was a welcome shock.

"I don't have a TV at home so my phone started going off and my partner told me it was all the boys texting me saying I made it," he told TVNZ.

"I still couldn't believe it until our manager here texted me and told me to come in (to the Highlanders' training centre)."

Naholo's brace on Saturday brought his tally to 11 tries for the season, a record for the Highlanders, whose finishing skills have sometimes failed to match their more dependable blue collar work ethic.

"He's come down here from Auckland last year, so again, he made a courageous decision to get up and move," Highlanders assistant coach Scott McLeod said by phone from Dunedin on Sunday.

"And he's tried hard and he's learned. And he's picked up what those around him have and formed some strong combinations down here.

"(Being selected) would be just desserts for him."

Though Naholo draws a natural comparison with fellow winger Savea, his emergence has mirrored the remarkable rise of a Highlanders team mate in centre Malakai Fekitoa.

Tonga-born Fekitoa also failed to make an impression at Auckland but blossomed at the Highlanders to earn an All Blacks jersey on the strength of one brilliant season of Super Rugby.

Fekitoa slotted in well in place of the injured Conrad Smith last season and is a virtual certainty to head to Britain in the 31-man squad for the World Cup.

With no shortage of talented, versatile outside backs in New Zealand, Naholo may have a tougher route to a regular All Blacks spot.

But he has a big chance to prove himself worthy on Saturday, when the Highlanders play the reigning champion Waratahs, a team laden with seasoned Wallabies, for a place in the Super Rugby final.

New Zealand squad:

Forwards

Dane Coles (Hurricanes), Hika Elliot (Chiefs), Keven Mealamu (Blues), Codie Taylor (Crusaders), Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders), Charlie Faumuina (Blues), Ben Franks (Hurricanes), Owen Franks (Crusaders), Joe Moody (Crusaders), Tony Woodcock (Blues), James Broadhurst (Hurricanes), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), Luke Romano (Crusaders), Jeremy Thrush (Hurricanes), Sam Whitelock (Crusaders), Sam Cane (Chiefs), Jerome Kaino (Blues), Richie McCaw (captain, Crusaders), Liam Messam (Chiefs), Kieran Read (Crusaders), Matt Todd (Crusaders), Victor Vito (Hurricanes)

Backs

Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), Aaron Smith (Highlanders), Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Dan Carter (Crusaders), Colin Slade (Crusaders), Lima Sopoaga (Highlanders), Ryan Crotty (Crusaders), Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders), Ma'a Nonu (Hurricanes), Conrad Smith (Hurricanes), Sonny Bill Williams (Chiefs), Israel Dagg (Crusaders), Cory Jane (Hurricanes), Nehe Milner-Skudder (Hurricanes), Waisake Naholo (Highlanders), Charles Piutau (Blues), Julian Savea (Hurricanes), Ben Smith (Highlanders)

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