Wales have insisted they had no qualms about including uncapped 30-year-old Willis Halaholo on their bench for this Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations away to Scotland even though it will likely lead to criticism over an overseas player who has qualified under the 36-month residency rule getting chosen ahead of veteran midfielder Jamie Roberts. 

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There had been mounting support among Wales fans in recent months claiming that the current form of Roberts, the 34-year-old last capped in November 2017, was worthy of recognition by Wayne Pivac.

However, despite Wales suffering a midfield injury crisis that has seen George North and Johnny Williams replaced in the starting line-up at Murrayfield by Owen Watkin and Nick Tompkins, Roberts missed out when Pivac called up cover in midweek, the coaching instead opting to pick Test level rookie Halaholo for his bench versus the Scots.  

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Explaining the logic behind his decision, Pivac explained: “We go through loads and loads of stats, we look at a lot of footage and we look at the skillsets and the way we want to play the game and Willis was at the top of the tree.  Jamie has a power game and Willis, funnily enough, is by far the best in the collision area because of his footwork, he beats defenders and gets over the gain line so that is what we are looking to utilise. 

“Also his offloading game and I think where we haven’t been ruthless on the edges and where we haven’t created opportunities, he is very good in that department of the game, straightening up the attack and putting people into space. We think that is what we need at the moment. We had a good long chat around Jamie and I have been in touch. Jamie has contacted me and I contacted him back and he knows exactly where he sits and if we need his services.”

 

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While ex-Scarlets coach Pivac would not have had any previous dealings with Roberts, who last year joined Dragons after many years of playing his club rugby outside of Wales, the New Zealander has known Halaholo for quite a considerable time as he coached the midfielder while he was part of the Auckland academy. “To get into the Auckland academy you have been identified from a young age,” said Pivac. “He was one of those players who just had fantastic feet, something that you can’t coach. He has just got natural ability and skill. 

“With Willis, it was always a matter how much he was prepared to put into the game and how hard he wanted to work and getting the work ethic required to play at the top level.  He worked hard at that over a long period of time and did well at the Hurricanes and then on the back of that getting a contract at the Blues. He has fought back from a serious injury so he has shown a lot of character there as well. He could be a special player going forward.”

Asked might the controversial 36-month residency rule, which qualifies the Auckland-born Halaholo to play for Wales, be used as a criticism against the Cardiff player receiving his Test call-up, Pivac continued: “Hadleigh Parkes [another Kiwi who played for Wales] scored two tries on debut and everyone was pretty excited about his eligibility. 

“Willis has got fantastic feet. He has most defenders beaten, he wins most collisions out of any of the Welsh players in the middle of the field. He has got something that other players don’t have and that’s an ability to break the line, to beat defenders and a very exciting skillset which hopefully at some stage on the weekend we will get to see.   

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“I’m a good one to talk to him and Toby Faletau as well. They are both Tongan boys and they are having a catch-up and talking all things Welsh rugby. I coached Willis in the Auckland academy years ago. I know him very well. He is a talented bloke. He has got a good head on his shoulders.

“He has had a tough upbringing so he is a very level-headed young man. At 30 years of age, you’re still a young man and he has got a lot of rugby ahead of him. He brings to us an exciting skillset. He is going to bring something a little bit different which we don’t have in the squad and that to me is exciting.”

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