Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Naholo answers prayer for a wing

Lack of depth out wide alleviated for worried All Black selectors.
Waisake Naholo
Waisake Naholo

The miracle man is back and just in time. Waisake Naholo, just as he did last year, is showing the natural timing of a comedian by returning from a broken leg to alleviate a growing angst about the All Blacks' meagre wing resources.

There's been an illusionary element to the first 10 weeks of Super Rugby - a sense of the game in New Zealand being without a single cause for concern. Skill levels are high, fitness across the board is good, four of the five teams are playing strongly with the fifth not far behind; there are young players emerging everywhere and thanks to an enormous broadcast deal there is cash in the bank.

But the All Blacks selectors have to comb the fine detail and for much of the last few weeks have been squirming a bit about the make up of their back three for the June series against Wales. The picture there hasn't been so rosy.

Despite the endless attacking qualities of the New Zealand Super Rugby teams, new champions haven't emerged on the wing, while the old ones have been struck down by injury and loss of form.

In the first game of the season, Naholo broke the same leg he cracked on test debut last year. The injury was assessed as having an eight-week recovery but broken bones don't always heal to the anticipated timeframes and the All Blacks coaches have only ever been hopeful rather than confident that Naholo would be passed fit to play before June.

Two weeks after Naholo's bad luck, Nehe Milner-Skudder was ruled out for the season with a damaged shoulder. The bad news kept coming: in late-March Julian Savea had to be dropped by the Hurricanes to shock him into working on his conditioning. Once again he'd been guilty of letting things slide with his diet and once again it was affecting his performance.

Savea was given two weeks to run himself into better shape and while that helped, he hasn't yet been - consistently or emphatically - the dynamic force of old.

Of the three specialist wings the All Blacks took to the World Cup one was definitely broken, one partly broken and the other was a metaphorical - certainly not literal - shadow of his former self.

The door was open for new heroes to jam their foot in and step into the All Blacks' frame. As coach Steve Hansen told the Herald in early April: "It is time for this group to step up again and for us to find other champions. And that will happen, someone will stand up."

But in specific regard to wings, only one new talent has thrust himself into the frame. That's Rieko Ioane, but the 19-year-old has committed to the Sevens programme and won't be available for test selection until the end of year tour.

He's been the only one to stake a claim. Patrick Osborne, who has been on the All Blacks fringes, is leaving for Japan and is believed to have decided that he will commit to play test football for Fiji.

George Moala, who played on the wing against Samoa last year, has been a bit part player in the Blues' midfield this year and hasn't got going to any extent. James Lowe was progressing, but injury has sidelined him and Cory Jane has been his tidy self without giving any compelling reason to return him to the international fold.

Naholo's return to action tonight has relieved some of the edge. Only some - because there will be nerves around how his leg responds. The selectors will cut him some slack in regard to his form - knowing that it may take a few games before he delivers.

They also know that at his best, he's a devastating force. Capable of finishing from nothing, working hard to get off his wing and competent in his defensive aerial duties.

Without him, the All Blacks were probably firming on a first test selection that would restore Israel Dagg to fullback, with Savea and Ben Smith on the wings. But there is reluctance to shift Smith, the All Blacks vice-captain and arguably best fullback in the world, from his preferred position.

The preferred option, with Milner-Skudder not available, would be to play Savea and Naholo on the wings, with Smith at fullback. That provides the All Blacks with the running power they want and also enough quality under the high ball to diffuse Wales' kicking game. Barrett, Dagg and McKenzie would be the options to provide back three cover.

- NZ Herald

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