Naholo tried hard but still came up short

Waisake Naholo, playing for Taranaki against Otago last month, runs hard at Forsyth Barr Stadium, as Jona Nareki gives chase. Photo: Getty Images
Waisake Naholo, playing for Taranaki against Otago last month, runs hard at Forsyth Barr Stadium, as Jona Nareki gives chase. Photo: Getty Images
Waisake Naholo is off to play overseas. It would be fair to say he left with a whimper rather than a bang. Rugby writer Steve Hepburn wonders where and how it all went wrong over the past 12 months for Naholo.

Waisake Naholo in full flight was a joy to watch.

He was a try-scoring machine, who had immense pace and the knack of being in the right place in the right time.

In five seasons with the Highlanders, he scored 45 tries in 62 games, a rate of at least two tries in every three games.

That is very, very impressive.

Israel Folau has the Super Rugby record with 60 tries but it took him 96 games so Naholo scored at a better rate.

In his first season for the Highlanders, Naholo set a record with 13 tries for the franchise as it went on to win the title in 2015.

This year was not so good as he scored only two tries for the Highlanders albeit missing a major part of the season. He played just eight games for the Highlanders as he suffered a knee injury in training.

He scored two tries for Taranaki in the just completed Mitre 10 Cup campaign as the side missed the playoffs.

So what happened? How did Naholo go from an absolute scoring machine to a guy who almost became allergic to the tryline.

Naholo came back early to train with the Highlanders at the start of the year and was super keen. However, he was a victim of the rest regime instilled in the All Blacks and did not start two of the first four games.

These rests can be good things but some players just like playing. That is why they are called players.

Naholo is one of those - a guy who needed to get the ball in his hand, get some space and score tries.

Unfortunately, the Highlanders had trouble getting him the ball. Defence dominated the early part of the season and then a big game against the Crusaders was canned.

The side went to Auckland to play the Blues in late March and Naholo had a stinker. We all have them and Naholo could do nothing right that night. Dropped balls, missed tackles and a yellow card - it all went wrong at Eden Park.

About 10 days later as the side came back from a bye, Naholo injured his knee and was out for seven weeks.

He came back and played in the final four games for the side.

There was hope he would still make the All Blacks but it was not to be. He had a quiet season for Taranaki and is now off to London Irish.

Naholo was low on confidence all year. In 2015, the ball seemed to follow him. That never happened in 2019.

That comes from a combination of good play by everyone on the field, especially Naholo, and a bit of luck.

Those intangibles which often create opportunities for players, never came the way of Naholo this season. The passes did not quite stick, the bounce of the ball went the other way. Trying too hard became obvious.

Naholo's body has taken a pounding over the years and it started to catch up with him. Now 28, he is no longer the fastest in the game.

He played 26 tests for the All Blacks, scoring 16 tries, but never got a long run in the team. As the game becomes more about skill and catching the high ball on the wing, Naholo never got a look-in.

WIth Ben Smith preferred on the wing and Naholo having no utility value, Naholo was left out.

His year was probably summed up in the dying minutes of Taranaki's final game last week.

Auckland winger Salesi Rayasi grabbed the ball 50m out and headed for the line.

Naholo took up chase, slowly got near him, dived to try to stop him but got mostly thin air as Rayasi scored.

Getting close, trying hard but ultimately coming up short - that was Naholo's 2019.

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