Highlanders confirm 'gaps to fill' in roster as Waisake Naholo returns to NZ

Former All Black Waisake Naholo is back in Dunedin after an injury-hit stint at London Irish, and a return to the Highlanders is not out of the question after they revealed they still have gaps available on their 2022 roster.

Naholo played only a handful of games during a two-year spell in the UK as he battled a persistent knee injury.

However, he is a chance of playing club rugby in Dunedin this weekend and when asked about Naholo, Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark told Stuff on Monday that they “still have gaps to fill for 2022”.

The Highlanders would have to be convinced that Naholo’s knee could stand up to the rigours of Super Rugby, particularly after Liam Squire and Nehe Milner-Skudder both struggled for game time this year.

However, the 30-year-old Naholo could get plenty of opportunities to prove his fitness in club rugby and potentially, the NPC.

Naholo was aligned to Taranaki prior to his departure to the UK, although there could be interest from Canterbury after Manasa Mataele (Western Force) and Josh McKay (Glasgow) left for overseas opportunities.

There has been something of a trend of former All Blacks returning to New Zealand in recent times, and Julian Savea was good value for the Hurricanes this year after first showing his worth in the 2020 NPC.

One factor in Naholo’s favour is the value Highlanders head coach Tony Brown puts in experience.

Brown signed veteran lock Bryn Evans and prop Josh Hohneck last year and was rewarded with a standout campaign from Evans, while the Highlanders’ new All Blacks prop Ethan de Groot credited Hohneck for helping him to win his test callup.

The Highlanders have a relatively inexperienced back-three unit, with Milner-Skudder not expected back in 2022, and Naholo’s professionalism was praised by London Irish boss Declan Kidney when he left the club.

“If somebody was to write a book about rehabbing (an injury) I would be interested in his,” Kidney told RugbyPass. “Sometimes when you see a player on the pitch it comes down to talent but professionalism is about how you go about your job and stick to the task.

“The way he has gone about his would show any player the way back and it hasn’t been easy for him – but I haven’t heard a word of complaint out of him.”

The Highlanders often used Sio Tomkinson or Ngantungane Punivai on the right wing this year, although they might be viewed primarily as midfielders in 2022 following the exit of Michael Collins (Ospreys).

Naholo had such an impact at the Highlanders that the chant bearing his name still rings out at Forsyth Barr Stadium two years after his exit.

He has previously turned out for the Harbour club in Dunedin, which also developed All Blacks prop George Bower and Tomkinson.