Rugby: Naholo's return highlights battle of AB backlines

By Kris Shannon

Waisake Naholo broke his leg in the Highlanders' loss to the Blues in round one. Photo / Getty
Waisake Naholo broke his leg in the Highlanders' loss to the Blues in round one. Photo / Getty

In a battle of backlines dotted with All Black starters and many more hopefuls, one man will hog the headlines when the Highlanders travel to the Chiefs.

Waisake Naholo will on Saturday enjoy his first Super Rugby action since the opening night of the season, marking his return from a broken leg in a blockbuster clash in Hamilton.

The wing last weekend scored a hat-trick in Dunedin club rugby and, after more than two months on the sidelines, has proven his fitness in training this week to take his place in what's promising to be an electrifying attacking exhibition.

An All Black selector could pick a decent backline from the two that will run out at FMG Stadium. Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden seem certain to be pairing up when Wales visit these shores in June, while Malakai Fekitoa and Charlie Ngatai are the current front-runners in midfield. And a team could do worse than boast a back three featuring Naholo, Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie.

The reserves in that composite squad would be pretty handy, too. Brad Weber and Lima Sopoaga could very well be backing up Smith and Cruden at some stage in the international campaign, and even wings James Lowe and Patrick Osborne have been touted as possibilities for the black jersey.

With such an array of talent on display and with the promise of a fine night in Hamilton, it will hardly be surprising if another New Zealand derby separates itself from the inter-conference clashes. And that will be especially true if Naholo's fitness allows, given he has three games to press his personal case for the Wales series.

The 24-year-old last year led the competition with 13 tries and led the Highlanders to their maiden title, before leg problems conspired to reduce his role at the Rugby World Cup. If he can again find the form he showed in the first half of 2015, Naholo will provide an added spark to a side that looked a little bereft in last week's win over the Brumbies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the fierce examination they received in Invercargill, the Highlanders forward pack has lost a couple of key man, with the absence of Shane Christie (hamstring) and Liam Squire (hip) likely to hand the Chiefs ascendancy at the breakdown.

Dave Rennie enjoyed better news on the injury front, able to recall both Ngatai and Lowe after the table-toppers' attack suffered a rare off night while being pushed close by the Sharks in New Plymouth.

That victory prolonged the Chiefs' seven-game winning streak and an unchanged forward pack will improve the home side's hopes of heading into their second bye with a handy lead atop the Super Rugby standings.

Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Toni Pulu, Seta Tamanivalu, Charlie Ngatai, James Lowe, Aaron Cruden (c), Brad Weber, Michael Leitch, Sam Cane (c), Taleni Seu, Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Hiroshi Yamashita, Hika Elliot, Mitchell Graham.

Reserves: Nathan Harris, Siate Tokolahi, Kane Hames, Michael Allardice, Maama Vaipulu, Kayne Hammington, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sam Vaka.

Highlanders: Ben Smith (c), Waisake Naholo, Matt Faddes, Malakai Fekitoa, Patrick Osborne, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, Dan Pryor, Elliot Dixon, Alex Ainley, Tom Franklin, Josh Hohneck, Ash Dixon, Dan Lienert-Brown.

Reserves: Greg Plesants-Tate, Aki Seiuli, Siosiua Halanukonuka, James Lentjes, Gareth Evans, Fumiaki Tanaka, Marty Banks, Teihorangi Walden.

- NZ Herald

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