Naholo gets set to continue Fiji’s All Blacks tradition

Waisake Naholo gets past the Argentinian defence in the Rugby Championship. Photo: Fairfax NZ

Waisake Naholo gets past the Argentinian defence in the Rugby Championship. Photo: Fairfax NZ

There is something about Waisake Naholo, something a little familiar.

The Fijian wing will be a focal point in the build up to the All Blacks’ third pool match at the Rugby World Cup, against Georgia in Cardiff on Saturday (NZ time), with coach Steve Hansen hoping to play one of the aces in his deck.

Naholo’s a great story. The bloke who broke his leg in his first test, sought alternative treatment in Fiji and somehow managed to make onto the plane to England.

Only the thing is, Hansen doesn’t place his rugby faith in miracles. He deals in facts.

Naholo’s include nine tries for Taranaki in last year’s national provincial championship and another 13 for the Highlanders in Super Rugby this year.

They include looking like a thoroughbred athlete of a rare breed. When the 24-year-old springs around at training heads turn. He moves with grace and power and does so with a glistening white smile and a bouncing rats tail.

And for those who have followed the All Blacks a fair while there is something familiar about the Fijian-born flyer.

It is impossible not to think of two other great Fijian All Blacks wings, Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu. They moved in the same fluid, effortless fast forward.

And they scored tries at an alarming rate.

Like Naholo, who limped off 51 minutes into his test debut, Rokocoko didn’t score a try during his debut against England in Wellington in 2003.

The All Blacks lost that day, but everyone knew the young Fijian with jets in his boots was something special. Ditto when Sivivatu scored four tries on debut against his countrymen in 2005 at North Harbour.

Athletes like these are hard to find. Fijians are blessed with athletic talent like few others.

The Rocket Man, as Rokocoko became known, scored two tries in his second test against Wales in Hamilton, three versus France in Christchurch, two more against South Africa at Loftus Versfeld, another hattrick against the Wallabies in Sydney and his eleventh test try against the Springboks in Dunedin.

Sivivatu was equally as prodigious over his opening six tests. After banking his quartet against Fiji he scored in both of the first two tests against the British and Irish Lions, then grabbed a brace against Ireland in Dublin on the end of year tour.

Half a dozen tests had yielded eight tries and if you throw in the four he scored in three tests for the Pacific Islanders the previous year against the Wallabies, South Africa and All Blacks, his try scoring feats are on a par with his cousin Joe.

Which brings us back to Naholo.

He has yet to score a test try but, with potentially five more tests at the Rugby World Cup, Hansen will see similar potential to those other two talented Fijian sensations.

Naholo has a couple of physical hit outs to get through in Cardiff this week where the All Blacks settled in on Sunday.

Provided he gets through those he will start against Georgia at Millennium Stadium, and probably against Tonga in Newcastle.

There are no guarantees, but Hansen’s hunches aren’t often wrong and the All Blacks have gone to extraordinary lengths to give Naholo the chance to shine.

Last time a player was shipped to a World Cup with the prospects of such limited play may well have been the great Michael Jones in 1991 when he could not play on Sundays due to his religious beliefs.

Few All Blacks are cut such slack and, despite the publicity around his injury, Naholo isn’t really much of a gamble.

Since Rokocoko and Sivivatu hung up their boots there has only been one other wing to have scored tries at such a rate of knots so early in their career.

That player is Julian Savea and if Naholo doesn’t work out then Nehe Milner-Skudder is setting a similar pace with four tries in his first four tests.

As Naholo cut a swath through Super Rugby one of his former age grade coaches shook his head at his sudden ability. He’d been so quiet and unassuming as a youngster he’d seemed almost uninterested at times.

Only he’s not. Sivivatu made his test debut at a similar age and spoke with a similarly inaudible tone, but inside him a fire burned. Rokocoko was sheer pace, a bright wide smile that blurred past defenders as if they stood still.

Now Naholo should be cut some slack against Georgia after more than two months on the sidelines. And he may or may not turn out to be as good as the aforementioned pair, but the memories seem so very familiar right now.

 – Stuff

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