Opinion: Naholo a modern day success story

Waisake Naholo trains with the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium last year. Photo by ODT.
Waisake Naholo trains with the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Photo: ODT files
OPINION: Waisake Naholo can leave New Zealand rugby safe in the knowledge he's made a genuinely worthwhile contribution.

Not so much in the All Blacks' sense. Playing for them is a perk. It's what Naholo did at other levels which reflects well upon him and, more broadly, our rugby pathway.

Not every kid can be an All Black or a Black Fern. But they can all, no matter where they're from, still aspire to reach those heights.

Former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw provides an almost nostalgic example. A farmer's son, from Scottish stock, McCaw hails from a tiny South Island town.

Like so many boys before him, he thrived amid the company of boarding school where his rugby talents were eventually spotted by future All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

From Otago Boys' High School, McCaw entered Canterbury's academy system and worked his way towards building the most storied All Blacks career of all.

Naholo's journey is one we now see more and more of these days. A quiet Fijian boy who idolised Rupeni Caucaunibuca, Naholo came to New Zealand aged 15.

Not to some schools rugby powerhouse, though, but Whanganui City College. Within three years he was playing Heartland Championship rugby for Wanganui, but there was still no reason to think a future test career had been born.

A move to the neighbouring Taranaki union brought Naholo to the attention of a broader audience and New Zealand under-20, All Blacks Sevens, Super Rugby and finally All Blacks selection followed.

We can't all grow up to be Richie McCaw or Waisake Naholo. Often because we don't have the work ethic and aren't prepared to make the sacrifices. But players of their ilk not only provide examples of all that's good about New Zealand rugby, but inspiration.

Whether you're in Kurow, Whanganui or even a village in the Pacific Islands, you can be an All Black if you try hard enough.

Now Naholo has signed a deal with London Irish and will say goodbye to New Zealand rugby following this year's Rugby World Cup.

That too is an example of the modern game in action. It's hard to know what happened with Naholo last year. One minute he was carving Australia up at ANZ Stadium, the next he was struggling to get picked.

Rightly or wrongly, it's always felt as if he were expendable at All Blacks level. Similar might be said about other Pasifika players too. In fact, if you're in that boat, and don't have Plan B teed up, it's probably time to get a new agent.

Rugby is often a collective effort for Pacific Island players. It's not merely about them and an expectation exists that any success will be shared with those around them.

All Blacks such as Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua and Lima Sopoaga don't cut short promising test careers by accident. They sign lucrative deals in Europe because, among other things, they want to change their family's circumstances. To give parents, who gladly sacrificed so much for them, a more comfortable life.

Naholo has made 26 test appearances for New Zealand, since his debut against Argentina in 2015. If he can get back on the park for the Highlanders, hopefully he'll add to that tally.

It won't be the 148-cap career McCaw enjoyed but then few, if any, Pasifika players might have the opportunity or inclination to play that much test rugby.

In Naholo's case, 16 tries in 26 test appearances is a fine effort. What's even better is the contribution, and inspiration, he offered at all the levels below that.

In that respect, his is a true modern day rugby tale.

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