What's happened to Waisake Naholo?

Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo hasn't been his usual brilliant self this season. Photo: Getty...
Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo hasn't been his usual brilliant self this season. Photo: Getty Images
It's starting to feel like the magical version of Waisake Naholo is never going to be seen again and that it's going to take another miracle to get him to a World Cup.

Something has gone wrong with Naholo in the last 12 months. His confidence looks shot and while he is full of good intentions to get himself into the game and make a contribution, he seems to have forgotten how to be himself.

It look like he's stopped trusting his instincts, that he no longer plays with only one thought in his head which is to get his hands on the ball and run.

At Eden Park on Friday night there was one wing playing with freedom, confidence and stunning awareness. There was one wing who lit the game up, punished the defence and scored tries that were a little hard to comprehend.

That wing was of course Rieko Ioane and who didn't, when he stormed 60 metres for a stunning solo try direct from first receiver, have a moment wondering if he might reproduce a similar play later this year and turn a tight World Cup knockout game?

Waisake Naholo challenges for a high ball during the Highlanders' loss to the Blues at Eden Park...
Waisake Naholo challenges for a high ball during the Highlanders' loss to the Blues at Eden Park last night. Photo: Getty Images
Naholo, hoping to have a similar impact, just couldn't find a way to get going and the more he realised he was failing to match Ioane, the more prone he became to making mistakes that were born of frustration.

He did, ironically, end up being hugely influential by getting himself yellow carded for a tackle on Tom Robinson that wasn't malicious, just technically poor.

The look of resignation on Naholo's face as he made his way off said it all. His body language confirmed it too that he's as confused as everyone else as to why his form has collapsed since the All Blacks test against Argentina in Nelson last year.

He's throwing all he's got into the mix and that, perversely may be the problem.

This time four years ago, Naholo was the man who could score from anywhere – and he was both a scorer of spectacular tries and a spectacular scorer of tries.

The Highlanders won Super Rugby in 2015 on a foundation of defensive belligerence and Naholo's attacking genius. He scored 15 tries, most of which he made himself.

He was so uninhibited, so free of convention that the defending team didn't know how to deal with him.

His laissez faire approach to structure and positioning meant he was occasionally exposed on defence but the maths always stacked in his favour and a few loose defensive moments were a price worth paying to have his attacking flair.

The All Blacks certainly held that view. First they got involved in extricating Naholo from a contract he had signed with Clermont in late 2014 and then they picked him in their World Cup squad despite the fact the broken leg he suffered 20 minutes into his test debut, wasn't going to heal until the third pool game of the tournament.

Naholo was the free-flowing force they wanted at the World Cup – an attacking wildcard to potentially throw into a big game and see if he could turn it on its head with a few random moments.

It has now been an age since Naholo was an unpredictable attacking phenomenon – tearing sides apart with his deceptive pace and obvious power.

He gave the Wallabies a hard time in Sydney last year but that was the last occasion he thrilled and since then he's played as if he's over thinking everything, too conscious about doing the right thing.

He is certainly not the free spirit he was in 2015 and perhaps four years in the professional game has coached out his instincts and replaced them instead with a fear of making mistakes.

The All Blacks coaching group are good at detecting where their players are at during Super Rugby – what they are doing well, not so well and what it might take for them to fix a few problems.

So there may well be a few words of wisdom offered to Naholo to help him find himself again in the next month or so and put his World Cup bid back on track.

And he definitely needs something to happen and change his career trajectory because right now, it's hard to believe he'll make it to Japan.

The All Blacks have their number one power wing in Ioane and in all probability are veering towards loading the rest of their back three with kick-catch, aerial players.

Ben Smith is a must have of course and Damian McKenzie, whether he's listed as a first-five, fullback or utility back will presumably also be going to the World Cup.

It's also hard to believe the All Blacks will leave Jordie Barrett out of their plans given his booming boot, ability to snaffle attacking cross kicks and his long range goal-kicking.

So Naholo is already battling not just his lack of form but an impressive list of contenders, which could also include George Bridge and Chase Tiatia.

It took the miracle of magic leaves on his broken leg to get him to the last World Cup and now he needs something that can clear his head and remind him that he if he thinks less and trusts more he can still make a case to be involved in this year's World Cup.

Comments

You have to remember that in 2015 he was coached by Tony Brown who is light years ahead of current coaches. (Look at sunwolves)I think the forwardss must agree we have no idea what happened to our backline.
I'm sure our forwards don't either

Very true, Restless. I think we're only now seeing what a positive impact Brown and Joseph had on the Highlanders setup. That 2015 season they were relentlessly unorthodox and they had the skills to make it work. Now it seems they don't know what style they want to play with and have wound up playing with none.

 

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