Waisake Naholo packs x-factor like no other player in New Zealand rugby, leaving coach Steve Hansen with little choice but to include him in his 31-man All Blacks squad to defend their Rugby World Cup title.
Naholo has overcome a leg fracture suffered midway through his Test debut against Argentina six weeks ago to win a surprise place in the hotly-contested fullback/wing spots.
The 24-year-old was expected to be sidelined for several months but after a course of natural herbal treatment in his native Fiji, he has been cleared by the All Blacks’ medical staff.
Naholo is expected to be fit for their third pool game, against Georgia in Cardiff on October 2.
His seemingly-miraculous recovery is the feelgood story in the selection of a vastly-experienced squad comprising 14 players who were part of the 2011 triumph.
Naholo joins lone fullback specialist Ben Smith, Julian Savea and rookie winger Nehe Milner-Skudder as the squad’s four outside backs.
It leaves no room for veterans Israel Dagg and Cory Jane, who were both first-choice selections in 2011, and the in-form Charles Piutau.
Hansen says the selectors couldn’t ignore the outright pace and elusiveness of Naholo, who scored a Highlanders-record 13 tries on their way to this year’s Super Rugby title.
“We can’t win this World Cup by just having ordinary, we’ve got to have something that’s different and he provides that,” Hansen said.
“Charles Piutau has played really, really well but we just feel Waisake has played better throughout the year.
“Israel and Cory have both been really hampered by injury and, again, they’ve missed out because we think that Waisake’s a better footballer.
“Jules and Nehe have both got runs on the board at Test level this year and we felt they were no-brainers as selections.”
One influential Highlander to miss out is five-eighth Lima Sopoaga, who has suffered from New Zealand’s playmaking riches.
Hansen says once the selectors had agreed veteran Dan Carter was the first choice No.10, it left Sopoaga – who shone in his test debut against South Africa in Johannesburg – facing an uphill battle to oust the more versatile Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade.
Speculation that only two specialist halfbacks would be named proved wrong, with Tawera Kerr-Barlow securing a third berth despite having spent most of the last year recuperating from a serious knee injury.
The makeup of the 14 backs was otherwise predictable, along with most of the 17-strong forward contingent.
Just three specialist locks are included, leaving room to include Victor Vito and Liam Messam among the loose forwards.
Prop Charlie Faumuina did enough in 40 minutes of NPC action for Auckland on Saturday – his first game for 14 weeks following minor neck surgery – to win selection ahead of Nepo Laulala.
Codie Taylor is the third hooker and one of 16 players who haven’t experienced a World Cup.
Captain Richie McCaw, hooker Keven Mealamu and Carter will all make their New Zealand-record fourth tournament appearance.
It will be the third for another centurion, prop Tony Woodcock, along with midfield backs Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu.
Backs: Ben Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Waisake Naholo, Julian Savea, Conrad Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Ma’a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams, Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett, Colin Slade, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
Forwards: Kieran Read, Victor Vito, Richie McCaw (captain), Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Tony Woodcock, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Dane Coles, Keven Mealamu, Codie Taylor.