Analysis: #WelcomeWillis

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After months of waiting the time has finally come, Willis Halaholo is in Cardiff! As The Beatles once kind-of sang, “you say goodbye and I say hello, Halaholo”. After a long season of Super Rugby followed straight away by New Zealand Provincial action it’s good to finally get him to Wales.

So what exactly do we have turning up to grace the blue of Cardiff and compete with Rey Lee-Lo, Cory Allen and Garyn Smith for a spot in the midfield? Fear not, I have you covered with all but his shoe size below!

Factfile

Full name: Willis Halaholo

DOB: 06/07/1990 (26)

Born: Auckland, NZ

Position: Centre

School: Mount Albert Grammar School

Clubs: Southland, Waikato, Hurricanes

Height: 1.81m (5ft11)

Weight: 105kg (16st5lbs)

Career

Having represented New Zealand Schools on their overseas tour to Australia alongside future All Blacks Elliot Dixon and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, before going on to play for Tonga at the 2009 Junior World Championship, there were big things expected of a young Halaholo coming out of the schools system.

However a transition into senior rugby did not materialise for him as he ended up playing local club rugby and going out to over 120kgs in weight. Through a chance encounter with a former coach though he returned to taking the game seriously and eventually secured a contract with New Zealand Provincial side Southland Stags after impressing for club side Suburbs of Auckland.

A late developer in that respect as he entered the professional game at 23 he made an instant impact for Southland, nailing down a spot in their midfield and impressing in two seasons of NPC rugby. Following the 2014 campaign he was picked up by Hurricanes and made it to Super Rugby, albeit only getting 53 minutes of game time all season in three substitute appearances having been largely kept out of the side by All Black duo Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu.

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Willis Halaholo struggled in his first season at Hurricanes

 

 

He was actually released by Hurricanes and returned to Southland without a Super Rugby contract for 2016, but decided to play in the 2015 NPC, turning down contracts in France and Japan as well as the chance to play for Tonga at the 2015 World Cup, to focus on getting another shot at the Super Rugby big time.

Another impressive campaign at the Stags, where he made 33 appearances and scored 10 tries in three seasons, did result in Hurricanes resigning Halaholo to their wider training squad, with Nonu and Smith both moving on to France. Willis came off the bench in all four of the Canes opening four matches, before starting at 13 in games against the Kings and Jaguares.

A slight knock and some loss of form restricted him to the occasional bench duty following that, but in May he got another first XV shot when Vince Aso picked up an injury. Halaholo slotted in brilliantly at 12, making the position is own as he started the final two regular season games and picking up a try against Crusaders, before starting all three play-off matches, grabbing a try in the semi-final over the Chiefs and helping Hurricances win the Super Rugby Final.

He moved on to play for Waikato in this season’s NPC, starting all 10 games in the season, the first three at inside centre before switching to the outside, scoring two tries for the Mooloo. Now the time comes for pastures new as Halaholo looks to make a name for himself at the Arms Park.

Willis Halaholo Hurricanes
Scoring against the Crusaders

 

 

Analysis

So the big question is, where will Willis play? Obviously it’s a fairly limited choice of either 12 or 13 but despite both being in the midfield there is often a fairly marked difference between the positions. Ask Cory Allen to play 12, for example, and he’d be struggling.

Generally, the inside centre is a player who can offer that crash ball run as well as a defensive organiser for the backs due to his position in the line, while the 13 is the link between the midfield and outside backs in attack and often the last line of defence before the open spaces of the wings.

What we are receiving here however is a rarity in that Halaholo is incredibly comfortable playing at both inside and outside centre. Willis has spent an equal amount of time playing in both positions this season, mainly at 12 with the Hurricanes and 13 at Waikato, and here are a few highlights to prove his versatility.

Although the same height as Rey Lee-Lo he is around 15kgs heavier than the Samoan and as such will be a better option on the crash ball line sometimes used in an attacking set by Cardiff. Just take a look at the power he shows in both clips below;

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Particularly in clip two he’s gone past four players before it takes two defenders to take him down already well over the gainline. However, there isn’t just the brute force to his game, Halaholo is more technical than that;

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Note in this clip of his try vs Crusaders how he receives the ball with three defenders in front of him and only a double marked winger outside. The killer show and step off the left foot completely throws two of the opposition players up against Halaholo though and catches the inside man unawares as he goes way too high in the tackle and Willis bounces him off. Great awareness, footwork and power. The full package at 12.

Moving onto the 13 skillset and take a look at the stepping here, I think Strictly Come Dancing could be a career move come retirement;

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A step to send any defender spinning as he spots the slow forward inside his man and speeds through the gap. As shown here and below, despite being a heavier man he’s not lacking any acceleration and still has the handling ability to play beyond the gain line;

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Both the running lines are beautiful attacking lines and I can already see them slotting into the Cardiff back line perfectly, but the most impressive thing, particularly in clip two, is the passing. At almost top speed he throws two beautifully timed passes, one off each hand, to the winger who scores a try on both occasions.

Essentially we’ve discovered that Willis is a natural on either side of the midfield but really it shouldn’t matter too much what shirt number he has on his back. The key to Halaholo’s success in Cardiff will be his link up play with mainly Lee-Lo and also Gareth Anscombe.

The centres need to work out, like Anscombe and Rhys Patchell had at the 10/15 axis last season, an understanding whereby the right player is stood at second and third five-eighth depending on the attacking set being adopted.

The confusion that could be created with Lee-Lo and Halaholo switching between 12 and 13 while both being able to run the crash ball and get around the outside could be crucial in keeping the defenders guessing and putting doubt in their minds.

Add the scrum-half being able to snipe from the set piece/breakdown, Anscombe’s ability to manufacture a line break and Tom James/Alex Cuthbert/Dan Fish/Matthew Morgan out wide then we are looking a force.

Conclusion

Overall I think the success of Willis Halaholo will come down to how effectively he slots into the back line to work with Rey Lee-Lo, Gareth Anscombe and Cory Allen. It is undoubted that we are getting a high quality player, you don’t play a big part in winning a Super Rugby title without having something about you, and hopefully he will play a part in taking Cardiff Blues back to the top.

Despite only being in Wales less than a week and having played rugby solidly since January there is plenty of talk regarding Halaholo starting at home to Llanelli on Friday and I for one am very keen to see him in action sooner rather than later after so many months of waiting. Go well Willis when you get the chance, and come on Cardiff!!

 

 

 

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