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Naholo, Vahaakolo still on radar as Highlanders search for wingers

By Alex McLeod
(Photos / Getty Images)

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They may be about to suit up for the Crusaders against their former side, but Waisake Naholo and Freedom Vahaakolo could still yet return to the Highlanders this season.

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That is the verdict from Highlanders head coach Tony Brown, who told media that both players are still on the franchise’s radar despite being picked up by their South Island rivals as injury cover.

The Highlanders and Crusaders will square off against each other in Oamaru on Friday to kick-off their pre-season schedules, two weeks ahead of their respective Super Rugby Pacific season-openers against the Chiefs and Hurricanes on February 19.

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Both sides have grabbed headlines after announcing their lineups for the fixture, with Los Pumas star Pablo Matera set to make his debut for the Crusaders after having joined the Christchurch-based franchise from French club Stade Francais.

The Highlanders, meanwhile, have named highly-promising stars Folau Fakatava, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Fetuli Paea and Jermaine Ainsley after all four players endured lengthy injury lay-offs.

Perhaps the other biggest sticking point from the team announcements was the inclusions of Naholo and Vahaakolo in the Crusaders squad to face the Highlanders.

Both players are former Highlanders wings, with Naholo the Dunedin-based outfit’s all-time leading try-scorer, but have been training with the Crusaders on a temporary basis over the course of the current pre-season.

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As such, both players have been named to play against their old team this weekend, but Brown isn’t worried about the prospect of facing off against his former squad members.

In fact, Brown said on Thursday that the fixture could be an opportunity for both Naholo and Vahaakolo to push for permanent places in the Highlanders squad for the season ahead.

“Not really. It’s just footy,” Brown said when asked if it would be strange coming up against his two former speedsters.

“We’re actually looking for a winger, so if they play well, they might find themselves in a Highlanders jersey.”

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It isn’t the first instance that Brown has spoken about bringing Naholo back to the Highlanders for the first time since 2019.

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Last September, he floated the idea of recruiting Naholo, and younger brother Kini, but now both players are at the Crusaders, as is Vahaakolo, who has become a fan favourite in Dunedin through his NPC performances for Otago.

Vacancies have emerged in the Highlanders squad for a variety of reasons, with the most pertinent positions that needs filling being in the outside backs.

Brown revealed that outside back Solomon Alaimalo is out indefinitely due to personal reasons, with no timeframe established around his return to play.

Young wing Connor Garden-Bachop, voted Super Rugby Aoteroa Rookie of the Year last season, is also under an injury cloud, although Brown said he is expected to be available from round two of Super Rugby Pacific.

Prior to the unavailability of those two players, the Highlanders had already been dealt a significant injury blow in the outside backs when star wing Jona Nareki was ruled was ruled out for most of the season with a serious knee injury in August.

Brown moved to fill the void left by Nareki by signing exciting Taranaki speedster Vereniki Tikoisolomone, who impressed in last year’s NPC and will make his first appearance for the Highlanders against the Crusaders.

Tikoisolomone will be joined by fellow Fijian wing Mosese Dawai, a new recruit from Waikato after having previously served as an apprentice at the Highlanders, and Brown suggested there was plenty to be excited about the duo.

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“They’re both going to get an opportunity this week to show what they’ve got. They’ve been pretty impressive at training,” he said.

“Vereniki’s got some amazing footwork. Probably haven’t seen that since Buxton Popoali’i played the game, so he’s pretty exciting, and then Mosese Dawaii’s just got skill and x-factor that all good Fijian wingers have.

“It’s going to be exciting to see them go. We’ll see which one performs the best.”

Likewise, Brown was full of praise for youngster Scott Gregory, who bounced back from a shocking debut Super Rugby season in 2020 to star for the Highlanders as a second-five last year and has been named to start on the left wing against the Crusaders.

“He’s got quite a lot of strengths as a rugby player. For us, he’s a bit like Richard Buckman. He’s a guy who can play multiple positions,” Brown said of Gregory.

“Anything around the collision area, the contact area, he is really physical and he owns that space, so we just feel as though that we need him on the field so we’re trying to find him a spot. He’s played a lot of left wing, so it’s not a concern of being out of position.

“He did play really well for us at 12 last year, so I suppose with Thomas and Fetuli getting the first opportunity, it’s up to them to claim those spots, otherwise we know that we can move Scott Gregory in there.”

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