Injured All Blacks and Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo has a big job ahead of him when he returns to full fitness in six weeks’ time.
The 27-year-old has been ruled out of action for about a month-and-a-half with a grade two MCL injury, denting both his World Cup selection hopes and the Highlanders’ chances of making the Super Rugby play-offs.
Already without key halfback Aaron Smith for about a month, it hasn’t helped the 10th-placed Highlanders that Naholo has been struggling for form so far this year, failing to find the tryline from four appearances and struggling to implement the game-breaking style of play that his reputation has been built upon.
His try-scoring drought and lack of impact with ball in hand has led to suggestions by many that he is now an outside chance of making Steve Hansen’s 31-man World Cup squad for Japan, and with just four regular-season matches left after his scheduled return, there seems to be little time for Naholo to build his case for selection.
While such an untimely injury would be the downfall of most players just five months out from a World Cup, Highlanders head coach Aaron Mauger believes that Naholo’s exuberant positivity should allow him to make a statement with the minimal time he has on his side.
“He’s actually coping pretty well,” Mauger told RugbyPass of how Naholo was handling the news of his knee injury.
“We’re very disappointed for him. He would have started this week if he was available.
“We back Wise 100 percent, he’s one of the most lethal finishers in the game, and one of the best wingers in this competition, so we’re absolutely gutted for him, but he’s handled it well and he’s positive as normal.
“You normally see Wise with a big smile on his face, so he walked through the door this morning with that same smile, so he can only control what’s ahead of him now, which is to get himself right, look after it, and hopefully he’ll be back on the field.”
Mauger revealed that Naholo’s lack of impact in the opening seven weeks of Super Rugby hasn’t been through a lack of trying to get him involved, and suggested that it could take just a single play from any given game to swing form and momentum back in his star wing’s favour.
“He’s a quality man and a quality rugby player, and it’s just reminding him of that, and when he plays his best footy, he plays with a smile on his face and he plays with freedom,” Mauger said.
“I think he just needs to touch the ball really.
“We’ve had plans to get the ball to him, and teams we’ve played against have tried to negate that, and sometimes that’s just the nature of being a winger.
“Tevita [Li] had plenty of touches up in Auckland [in their last match against the Blues], created some opportunities for Wise, [but] didn’t quite execute.
“He’s not far away, it’ll take just one action and his game will click and he’ll be away.”
Mauger confirmed that no reinforcements have been called in to replace Naholo during his six-week layoff, despite there being no replacement for fellow injured outside back Tevita Nabura, who has been ruled out for the season with a knee injury.
No squad replacement will need to be made in the midfield, though, as Rob Thompson returns to the matchday squad for the Highlanders’ derby clash with the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday.
Named on the bench behind a new-look midfield partnership of Tei Walden and Richard Buckman, this week’s match will be Thompson’s first since his side’s 36-31 win over the Reds in February, where he sustained a match-ending ankle injury inside the first 20 minutes.
That match was both the Highlanders’ last home match and their last victory, so after three successive defeats and a match cancellation, Mauger is hopeful the 27-year-old can provide some much-needed impetus off the pine after an extended but largely unsuccessful midfield partnership run between Sio Tomkinson and Thomas Umaga-Jensen.
“It’s great to have Bobby back in the mix,” Mauger said.
“He’s worked extremely hard over the last few weeks since he first hurt his ankle, so he’ll come on towards the backend of the game.
“It was touch-and-go whether we had a look at potentially starting him. I think Thomas and Sio were two unlucky guys that miss out and have done a fantastic job and we’ve seen a lot of growth between those boys through the year as well, so it’s a competitive position, like all other positions, but that’s what we want in this team.
“It’s only good for us because those boys can keep challenging each other and bring out the best.”
Highlanders team to play the Hurricanes: 1. Ayden Johnstone, 2. Liam Coltman, 3. Tyrel Lomax, 4. Josh Dickson, 5. Tom Franklin, 6. Shannon Frizell, 7. James Lentjes, 8. Luke Whitelock (cc), 9. Kayne Hammington, 10. Marty Banks, 11. Tevita Li, 12. Tei Walden, 13. Richard Buckman, 14. Matt Faddes, 15. Ben Smith (cc)
Reserves: 16. Ash Dixon, 17. Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18. Siate Tokolahi, 19. Jackson Hemopo, 20. Elliot Dixon, 21. Folau Fakatava, 22. Josh Ioane, 23. Rob Thompson
Aaron Mauger’s full press conference ahead of Hurricanes:
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