Chalk up another victory for traditional Fijian healing methods.
Barely six weeks after Waisake Naholo limped off with a broken leg on test debut, the Taranaki and Highlanders wing bolted into the All Blacks’ World Cup squad of 31, named on Sunday.
The 24-year-old was the big talking point of the announcement at the Beehive in Wellington as he filed out in his suit and tie with the team-mates tasked with defending the Cup in England, starting next month. He was one of four outside backs named, joining Ben Smith, Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder, the latter forcing his way in with two impressive tests against Australia.
It meant players of the quality of Charles Piutau, Israel Dagg and Cory Jane all missed out, with Piutau the unluckiest of the lot after some compelling All Blacks form this year.
IAIN MCGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ
Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo was the big surprise when the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup squad was named on Sunday night.
Naholo displayed something of a Midas touch after representing Wanganui as a schoolboy fresh from Fiji. Last year his nine tries for Taranaki helped them win the NPC, then he stormed through Super Rugby with 13 tries for the title-winning Highlanders. But his World Cup dream looked over when he suffered a cracked fibula after 50 minutes on debut against Argentina on July 17, which he was told would sideline him for three months.
A remarkable story emerged from his home village, where he returned for treatment. His uncle, Isei Naiova, told local media he applied traditional leaves known as kawakawarau on Naholo’s leg for four days. Naholo was checked by All Blacks medical staff and is expected to be fit for their third game against Georgia in Cardiff on October 3.
“It’s been really frustrating not being able to do anything and watching the boys and knowing I could be there as well,” Naholo said.
“I never dreamed growing up in Fiji that I’d put the black jersey on; it’s a dream come true.”
The selectors, headed by coach Steve Hansen, clearly couldn’t ignore Naholo’s gamebreaking qualities and it gives the All Blacks two blockbusting wingers with Savea. Hurricanes star Milner-Skudder, whose uncles George Skudder and Buff Milner were All Blacks, can cover fullback and also falls into the matchwinner category. He headed off Jane who paid the price for an injury-hit season, while Dagg struggled for top form and probably suffered from a lack of versatility.
Highlanders first-five Lima Sopoaga was the other desperately unlucky one, as the selectors went with experience in the form of Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade.
Sopoaga looked a good bet after a cool-headed debut against the Springboks in Johannesburg, and his role as a key guiding hand in the Highlanders’ Super Rugby title win. He appeared a ready-made backup as a starting No 10 should Carter suffer injury, but the selectors went for the versatility of Barrett and Slade who can cover fullback and wing respectively.
Both Barrett and Slade hardly featured in the All Blacks tests this year but the selectors were convinced on past efforts in black.
Others to be counted unlucky were lock Jeremy Thrush, who missed out due to the selectors going with three specialist locks: Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano. It meant loose forwards Victor Vito and Liam Messam each got the call-up. Midfielder Ryan Crotty missed out, with Sonny Bill Williams included despite a comparatively flat 2015, while prop Nepo Laulala made big strides but was pipped by Charlie Faumuina who returned from injury for Auckland in the nick of time at the weekend.
Hansen said the unlucky ones needed to keep their chins up and could well be required in the mould of 2011 cult hero Stephen Donald.
“We should spare a thought for those guys who have worked just as hard and missed out. We need those guys to get over their disappointment; we’re a tight-knit family and will help with that. At some point, history tells us we’ll need them in a black jersey. We wish them all the best and we see them very much in the future,” Hansen said.
The rest of the squad was predictable, with 17 forwards and 14 backs. They went with three halfbacks, with Tawera Kerr-Barlow snaring the third spot, and three hookers, with Codie Taylor getting his big moment at the expense of Hika Elliot after a robust display off the bench in Johannesburg.
The All Blacks remain in Wellington for a camp, then assemble in Auckland just before flying out on September 10. Their tournament opener is against Argentina on September 21.
“To the fans I would like to say: our attitude going into this Rugby World Cup is not a case of expecting it, but one of making it happen. The Cup isn’t ours. We are not defenders; like everyone else, we are contenders. We have to earn the right to win it through world-class performances,” Hansen said.
“In doing so, we have to do something that no-one has ever done before. But that is a hugely exciting challenge and one I believe the team will rise to. With this in mind, we believe we have selected players with the right mix of experience, x-factor, determination and mental strength. This is an exciting and talented group of players who are looking to do something that hasn’t been done before, and make New Zealanders proud.”
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).