The sight of Waisake Naholo terrorising opposition defenders as the Highlanders fell to the Stormers in Cape Town on Saturday was a welcome return to normality.
Although the result didn’t fall in his side’s favour, and their hopes of Super Rugby play-offs virtually lie outside of their hands, Naholo’s try-scoring return to rugby is something that All Blacks fans must be savouring four months out from the World Cup.
It was a vintage Naholo display that had yet to be seen up until that point of the season, as poor form dating back to late last year prior to an MCL injury that ruled him out of action for eight weeks starved onlookers from witnessing the Naholo that most had become accustomed to.
Last week at the Newlands, however, the 28-year-old was in inspired form in his first match back.
He used his blistering pace and explosive power to full effect as he clocked up 104 running metres, two clean breaks, two defenders beaten, three turnovers won through his immense strength over the ball at the breakdown, eight tackles made from eight attempts, and a try off the back of some good inter-linking play and continuity by his teammates.
It is match statistics like these that have helped make Naholo both the Highlanders’ leading all-time try-scorer and a prominent figure within the All Blacks squad since 2015.
That prominence within the national set-up came into question during last year’s northern tour, though, following a string of underwhelming outings, which carried on through early into this year’s Super Rugby campaign as he failed to re-establish himself as one of the competition’s most lethal wings.
However, it now appears the Naholo of old is back, and as a result, he’s clawed himself back into All Blacks contention after many had ruled him out.
It wouldn’t have been out of the question for Steve Hansen to have included him regardless of form in what’s likely to be an extended squad for the upcoming Rugby Championship.
The All Blacks head coach has a history of keeping faith in players of whom he’s regularly picked in the past despite the inconsistency of their performances, and it’s conceivable that he would have done the same for Naholo had he continued his wavering form.
He might only be one match into his comeback, but that should be irrelevant now as Naholo has seemingly resurrected his form, and a call-up to the All Blacks for at least the Rugby Championship should not only have Hansen’s seal of approval, but also the public’s.
Furthermore, if he can sustain the quality of performance he laid upon the Stormers for the remainder of Super Rugby and throughout the condensed Rugby Championship, then a World Cup call-up – which almost seemed dead in the water upon the announcement of his knee injury two months ago – would be inevitable.
That’s on the basis that Hansen follows through on comments he made in February, when he said the performances of players at the latter rounds and play-offs of Super Rugby will count for more given the high-pressure environments that comes with those matches.
“We’re looking for people who can show you, particularly in the business end of Super Rugby, that they can cope with the heat of the fire and the pressure that comes with it,” he told Newstalk ZB.
“That’s why the latter games of the tournament are so important because that’s when the pressure is really on.
“That will show you how they cope, but it’s another level when you get to the All Blacks, you haven’t just got your franchise looking at you, you’ve got the whole nation.
“For some, it can be overwhelming, and you’ve got to take the time with them so they can grow and learn to cope with it.”
One individual who may struggle to cope with such pressure in a World Cup year, purely through lack of experience, is Crusaders flyer Sevu Reece.
The 22-year-old has staked a massive claim to win Super Rugby rookie of the year, impressing with his strong ball-carrying, blockbusting power, electric speed and determined work ethic.
All of this has culminated in him sitting second-equal in the league for tries scored (nine), sixth-equal for offloads (17), seventh-equal for line breaks (13) and ninth-equal for tackle busts (34), all while he’s played just nine games so far this season.
No doubt Reece has spectacularly played himself into All Blacks contention, and his omission from John McKee’s preliminary 50-man Fiji World Cup training squad indicates his international future, in the short-term at least, lies with New Zealand rather than with his nation of birth.
He shares similar wing qualities to that of Naholo, both of whom play ‘power wing’ roles based on physical, athletic prowess as opposed to those who operate on skill-based attributes, such as Damian McKenzie, Jordie Barrett and Ben Smith.
While listed as a first-five within the All Blacks, McKenzie was largely deployed as a fullback for the national side, so his season-ending knee injury last month means that there will likely be an additional space in the outside backs for the World Cup, as Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga are almost certain to be the only two first-fives in the squad with no suitable third-choice option being eligible for selection.
Consequently, there would be a five-man outside back contingent, meaning there will be enough for two ‘power wings’ among the other outside backs who act as playmakers, counter-attackers, utilities and are designed for aerial battles.
One of those ‘power wings’ will undoubtedly be Rieko Ioane, indisputably the best wing on the planet, meaning Naholo and Reece are direct rivals with one another for the second ‘power wing’ slot.
With Naholo’s chequered form and injury woes up until Saturday, and given Reece’s undeniably outstanding form since his Super Rugby debut in round four, most would have the latter as their pick to accompany Ioane as the second ‘power wing’ option in Japan later this year.
But, as Naholo begins to rise to form at just the right time of the season, the selection disparity between him and Reece is beginning to diminish.
That much is particularly evident when taking into consideration that the threat posed by Reece has been drastically nullified in three of his last four outings, as the Sharks, Stormers and Blues restricted him to a combined total of 26 metres, two defenders beaten, less than one clean break per match, and no tries.
All of those statistics pale in comparison to his season averages of 72 running metres, 4.1 defenders beaten, 2.7 clean breaks and one try per match.
That’s not to suggest that Reece’s form is declining or that he’s fallen out of favour with the national selectors, but it certainly paints a picture that he hasn’t consistently maintained the vein of form that catapulted him onto the All Blacks’ radar in March and April.
Combine that with the lack of experience he has over Naholo – who won both the World Cup and Super Rugby with the All Blacks and Highlanders in 2015, claimed the ITM Cup with Taranaki in 2014, was part of the World Cup-winning All Blacks Sevens side in 2013 and has 26 test caps to his name – and the shift in momentum for All Blacks selection looks to be moving in Naholo’s direction.
It may only be one game since his return from unemphatic form and a substantial injury, but that one outing has shown that he’s primed for action in the most important stretch of Super Rugby for World Cup contenders, and with the experience he has under his belt compared to his rivals, there remains a strong case for Naholo’s inclusion in Japan.
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