Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder look on during the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby World Cup team announcement on August 30. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty ImagesThe Waisake Naholo storyline seems too crazy to be true.
When Naholo suffered a small fracture in his fibula bone during his test debut against Argentina six weeks ago, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen shook his head and said the try-scoring machine’s chances of making the 31-man World Cup squad to travel to Britain appeared shot.
Then Naholo, just as he did for the Highlanders when he used his guile and speed to bamboozle opponents to score 13 tries, did something unexpected.
He made a beeline for his homeland of Fiji, where he sought traditional medical treatment, put his faith in the power of positive thinking and proved to the All Blacks he should be fit to play their third pool match against Georgia in Cardiff on October 3.
“I am not sure if that made a difference or not,” Hansen said in reference to the Fiji treatment. “But we just stayed with our plan. He is still on track – in fact he is probably 10 days ahead of what we initially thought.”
Asked about the treatment in Fiji, Naholo, having said he had also placed his trust in the All Blacks’ medical staff, said: “They are all the same, they all helped.
“It was just massage and some traditional leaves that they used (in Fiji).”
The fact selectors Ian Foster, Grant Fox and Hansen are prepared to name Naholo, whose form with the Highlanders impressed so much they got NZ Rugby to help dig him out of a contract with French club Clermont Auvergne, among their four outside backs says it all.
There is risk in carrying an injured player, but Hansen said the 24-year-old would effectively miss just one match because he wouldn’t have been expected to play in the second pool match against Namibia as it is just four days before the Georgia game.
“What are the rewards of taking Waisake? Well, he is a try-scoring machine, he has X-factor and he brings something to the team that others in the group don’t bring,” Hansen said.
“We can’t win this World Cup by just having the ordinary, we have got to have something different and he provides that.
“We just feel Waisake has played better throughout the year.”
Shoehorning the Sigatoka-born Naholo, who will join other Fijian pace merchants such as Josevata Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu in representing the All Blacks at a World Cup, has resulted in some high-profile casualties, notably wings Charles Piutau and Cory Jane and fullback Israel Dagg.
“Israel and Cory have been really hampered this year by injuries have probably missed out because we think Waisake is a better footballer,” Hansen explained.
The decision to list Nehe Milner-Skudder, Julian Savea and Ben Smith as back-three options was termed a “no brainer”.
They were not the only ones forced to suck the bitter pill of disappointment; first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga and lock Jeremy Thrush will feel the hurt more than most.
Sopoaga, like Piutau, played a blinder in the win against the Springboks in Johannesburg a month ago. Playmaker Sopoaga, who displayed steely nerves in his debut at Ellis Park, was overlooked for the more experienced Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade.
Hansen noted Sopoaga had placed immense pressure on Carter to hold his spot and the veteran playmaker had responded with a complete performance against the Wallabies to retain the Bledisloe Cup in Auckland.
“The guy that was probably under the most pressure at the point (after the Jo’burg test) was probably Dan. And he has come out and said ‘okay I can do the job, too’.”
ALL BLACKS SQUAD
Hookers: Dane Coles (Hurricanes/Wellington), Keven Mealamu (Blues/Auckland), Codie Taylor (Crusaders/Canterbury).
Props: Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders/Canterbury), Charlie Faumuina (Blues/Auckland), Ben Franks (Hurricanes/Hawke’s Bay), Owen Franks (Crusaders/Canterbury), Tony Woodcock (Blues/North Harbour).
Locks: Brodie Retallick (Chiefs/Bay of Plenty), Luke Romano (Crusaders/Canterbury), Samuel Whitelock (Crusaders/Canterbury).
Loose forwards: Sam Cane (Chiefs/Bay of Plenty), Jerome Kaino (Blues/Auckland), Richie McCaw – captain (Crusaders/Canterbury), Liam Messam (Chiefs/Waikato), Kieran Read (Crusaders/Canterbury), Victor Vito (Hurricanes/Wellington).
Halfbacks: Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs/Waikato), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes/Wellington), Aaron Smith (Highlanders/Manawatu).
First five-eighths: Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes/Taranaki), Daniel Carter (Crusaders/Canterbury), Colin Slade (Crusaders/Canterbury).
Midfielders: Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders/Auckland), Ma’a Nonu (Hurricanes/Wellington), Conrad Smith (Hurricanes/Wellington), Sonny Bill Williams (Chiefs/Counties Manukau).
Outside backs: Nehe Milner-Skudder (Hurricanes/Manawatu), Julian Savea (Hurricanes/Wellington), Ben Smith (Highlanders/Otago), Waisake Naholo (Highlanders/Taranaki).