The Super Rugby 2015 final boils down to an in-house scrap between New Zealand’s two best franchises in Wellington.
The Hurricanes and the Highlanders have taken different routes to this contest at the summit, and the home side start as favourites after topping the table and beating the Highlanders twice already this season.
But Jamie Joseph’s men have been underrated all season.
A pack with no star names has consistently punched above its weight, giving the league’s best scrum-half Aaron Smith the sort of platform he craves and allowing a potent back line containing All Blacks Malakai Fekitoa and captain Ben Smith to carve teams up.
But the real show-stopper for the men from Dunedin this season has been the man in the No. 14 shirt, Waisake Naholo. The Fijian-born wing led the try-scoring charts this year with 12, one ahead of Hurricanes scrum-half TJ Perenara, per the New Zealand Herald.
All eyes will be on Naholo on Saturday. This contest brings him into direct conflict with All Blacks try machine Julian Savea. The 24-year-old has an astonishing record in Test rugby of 30 tries in 33 appearances, per espn.co.uk. He has bagged eight for the ‘Canes this season.
Naholo, just 24, may well be the man to play on the opposite flank to Savea for the All Blacks this year.
They have certainly made it clear they rate him by including him in their extended training squad, an invite that backed up Naholo’s decision to renege on a contract he signed to join French club Clermont Auvergne next season, per stuff.co.nz.
The giants from the Massif Central wanted him as a replacement for the departing Napolioni Nalaga, who has been one of the best players in Europe for years, but the lure of the black jersey has proved stronger than the money on offer in France.
It is also something of a turnaround since Naholo was deemed surplus goods by John Kirwan at Auckland. That was what prompted his decision to head north and, before his mind was changed, it left stuff.co.nz's Glenn McLean lamenting his loss to New Zealand:
Naholo was handled poorly in New Zealand. Not in Taranaki but in Auckland where the Blues, under coach John Kirwan, could not see how good a player they potentially had.
The franchise has bleated on about how much talent they have in their outside back ranks but are any of their current roster playing anywhere near as good as Naholo?
The answer is the opposite of yes.
It’s little wonder Steve Hansen likes what he has seen, and made moves to keep him south of the equator.
Naholo is the full package: big, fast, agile and deadly. Each of these attributes was displayed by the try he created for himself in the semi-final against the Waratahs, when he neatly dabbed the ball beyond his defender into the dead-ball area, then outpaced the cover to reach it before it rolled out of play.
Naholo showed great dexterity to dive on the pill and get sufficient downward pressure before he went clattering out of play.
Doing the same to Savea on Saturday will be a tall order, but it is a head-to-head Chris Rattue of the New Zealand Herald is looking forward to.
Hard to imagine anyone getting the better of Savea at the moment. He is the best wing in the world and has perfected a few calling cards, like driving low to the goal line. Naholo doesn't need much room to cut teams apart with his speed, as he showed with his kick-ahead try against the Waratahs. But the Hurricanes will cover those situations with more panache, energy and maybe even the odd blocking move if necessary. A tantalising contest in store.
As the highlight reel shows, Naholo, much like Savea, can score every type of try. He can pick off interceptions, smash through tacklers, outstrip people with his pace and pluck cross-field kicks from the sky. This season saw him break Jeff Wilson’s record try tally for the franchise.
The stats say the average score when these two meet at the Cake Tin in Wellington is 28-24 to the ‘Canes, per superxv.com, so we can look forward to a tight contest.
Naholo has proven that he can be a match-winner under just such circumstances, and if he brings his A game on Saturday, he will be the man to watch.