Highlanders pair Aaron Smith and Waisake Naholo have combined brilliantly this season. Now their understanding could translate onto the Test stage with New Zealand.
Whenever a New Zealand squad is announced, a palpable air of intimidation accompanies it. You know they possess an astounding abundance of talent, but it is not until the list of names is amalgamated that the All Blacks’ riches truly hit home.
On Sunday, Steve Hansen unveiled a 41-strong group for the one-off clash with Samoa on July 8 and the subsequent Rugby Championship against Argentina, Australia and South Africa. Jaws dropped around the world.
Ardie Savea has been a stand-out of the Super 15 campaign, going some way towards fulfilling his awesome potential by spearheading the Hurricanes’ surge to the top of the regular season table with some explosive, effervescent displays from openside. He did not have a place. That defines the depth this side boasts.
On the face of it, Aaron Smith and Waisake Naholo seemed fairly contrasting selections. The former is a scrum-half that has become an integral influencer at international level since his Test debut three years ago. The latter, one of five uncapped protagonists in the group, has rocketed to prominence in recent months. His powerful, predatory finishing simply demanded involvement.
But, as Sam Bruce highlighted for ESPN this week, their paths – as well as that of fly-half Lima Sopoaga, another potential debutant – have intertwined since February.
In the interim, Naholo has scored 11 tries for the Highlanders. The Otago and Southland franchise find themselves facing champions Waratahs in the last four. Fiji-born wing Naholo bagged a brace in Saturday’s thrilling qualifying final as the Chiefs went down 24-14. Smith manufactured both brilliantly from first phase.
Of course, a number nine’s most important on-field relationship is the one they share with their fly-half. Constant cajoling of the forward pack is essential too. However, when looking to expose the blindside – a skill that has diminished with the regimen of defensive structures and one-on-one tackling – an instinctive understanding between scrum-halves and wings can prove fruitful.
Blast from the past
Take this stunning score, the first of the 2013 British and Irish Lions series in Australia. Israel Folau dives over eventually, but the ambition, decision-making and execution of Will Genia are sublime:
Now, this try is slightly different from the other situations we will look at because it comes from a tap penalty. The defence is largely unaware and therefore largely unorganised.
Indeed, as referee Chris Pollock penalises the Lions, Genia digs for the ball and looks up to see two opponents, Alun-Wyn Jones and Adam Jones, with their hands on their knees straight in front of him.
Another, Alex Corbisiero, is trucking back slowly, while Mike Phillips has not yet reacted. Three more Lions are involved in the ruck, meaning almost half the side are tied up. Glancing across to see Folau and James O’Connor, Genia takes his chance:
In fairness, Phillips get back well and George North calls Tom Croft into the line, creating a three-on-three situation:
However, a dummy and a swerve from Genia gets him past Phillips and Croft and into the clear. Supporting his scrum-half, O’Connor cuts back infield on a switch line, coaxing North to follow. Crucially, Folau retains his width as full-back Leigh Halfpenny comes across:
Genia then slows his stride, attracting both North and Halfpenny into the tackle before threading a beautiful grubber into the gap between the Welshmen for Folau to pick up:
Given this was Folau’s first outing for the Wallabies, the immediate empathy between him and Genia is impressive. In enclosed spaces, such as on the short side of a breakdown, collaboration like this thrives. And Smith is a master of exploiting even the smallest openings.
Darting down the alley
On just his second All Blacks appearance, a 22-19 defeat of Ireland in Christchurch, Smith made the game’s telling intervention with a show-and-go around the fringe of a ruck:
He is indebted to his forwards for shoving him over here, but the point is that the scrum-half is always aware of attacking possibilities. We will come to another instance of him ‘bouncing back’ towards the blindside later.
For now, take this set-piece from the first Test against England at Eden Park last June. A scrum presents a decent blindside to the left, but New Zealand deploy nobody there. Instead, they stack the openside to the right. Still, Smith so nearly creates a try all on his own:
The first element of this is communication. Smith taps the left hip of No 8 Jerome Kaino, signalling the direction in which he wants the pass. Notice the body angles of Ben Youngs and James Haskell – both have squared themselves off from the blindside…
…as such, a five-metre pass from Kaino allows Smith to use his pace and stretch them:
He curves around, engaging Marland Yarde before a left-footed dink over the wing’s head and infield sets up himself and Kaino for a chase:
Smith beats Yarde to the ball, hacking it close to the try-line…
…and only an uncharacteristic Kaino knock-on prevents the score. This Super 15 season, Naholo has rarely looked such gift horses in the mouth.
This try comes from the Highlanders’ 25-20 win over the Crusaders in April, and is a beautifully executed set move:
As hooker Liam Coltman throws in, you can just about make out Naholo, positioned in midfield and poised to carry:
Instead, Smith picks out another runner, left wing Patrick Osborne. As Highlanders rush left to resource the ruck, he glances back to the right:
With Crusaders forwards migrating towards the breakdown, Naholo sprints behind everyone in a semi-circle towards the touchline. Smith unleashes a trademark bullet pass off his left hand.
At the end of this clip, it is possible to see Jordan Taufua scramble to change direction:
However, it is too late. The speed of the pass beats all four short side defenders. Sam Whitelock is the last one, and Naholo scorches past him with ease having picked a perfect angle:
This ‘bounce back’ play is a prime demonstration of manipulating a defence, something the Chiefs were subjected to on Saturday by the same duo.
Carnage among Chiefs
Minutes into this weekend’s tie, the Highlanders were denied a phenomenal team try by the television match official. Naturally, more Smith and Naholo trickery hauled them onto the front foot:
Fed from the lineout, Smith plays matador with Liam Messam:
Slicing through the gap that the Chiefs captain has left, he then draws hooker Hika Elliot. Notice that Naholo has advanced slightly in front of the carrier. Anticipating the kick, he had set off rapidly but has now put on the brakes to remain in support:
Because of this, he can still reach backwards to take a perfectly legal pass with one hand:
This is a fine piece of improvisation from the pair, and only a fleck of chalk on Naholo’s studs stopped it from leading to a try. Minutes later, the Chiefs were not as lucky:
In a way, this try comes from similar origins to the Folau effort at the top of this article. Because the ball shoots out the back of the scrum unexpectedly, it is primarily about reactions against a disjointed defence. Smith shoots back to pick up and his natural course takes him onto the blindside.
Notice though, that Naholo responds straightaway. He knows that if Smith can isolate the widest Chiefs defender, James Lowe, an opening could be on the cards:
Sure enough, Smith keeps the ball in two hands and his pace outstrips both Chiefs No 8 Messam and blindside flanker Michael Fitzgerald. Lowe must commit, so Smith calmly draws him to put Naholo clear:
From this point, the scene resembles a staggered set of two-on-ones, similar to drills done by every junior team around the world.
The crux is resourceful support play – both players stay on their feet and in the game, picking off opponents precisely. Naholo times his pass infield to Smith flawlessly, taking out two covering Chiefs…
…before Smith slips it back to him to finish things off:
For the second of Naholo’s double, the Chiefs deployed two outside backs to cover the short side from a five-metre scrum. Again though, it was not enough:
Much like the chip against England highlighted earlier, Smith clocks the closed-off body positions of the Chiefs back row…
…before setting off towards the outside shoulder of Andrew Horrell. Messam is tied in and Michael Leitch struggles to make up the ground:
Smith arcs backwards in order to bypass Horrell. This is interesting, because it flouts the coaching manual entirely. That said, it proves hugely effective – but only because Naholo holds his depth, therefore remaining an option.
Lowe overruns and slips as Smith delays the pass…
…ending up on the floor as Smith flicks out a try-scoring offload to Naholo, whose role in this is far from straightforward:
The reverse angle provides a better idea of Smith’s unconventional line of running – and how his wing has to tread water in order not to get in front of the ball:
Naholo wept tears of pride when ringing his family in Fiji to break the news of All Blacks selection. His pre-contract deal with Clermont will surely be called off should he get a chance to shine at Test level. With Smith pulling the strings, you would not rule out a few tries as well.
Before that, though, this precocious pair will aim to bring a Super 15 title to the season’s plucky, popular underdogs. It will be extremely entertaining to watch their attempts.