Time for the hot stepper

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It wasn’t even three months ago that we were preparing for the 2020 Six Nations to start but it may as well have been a century ago as the concept of time somewhat vanishes as the Coronavirus lockdown continues.

However, I want to take you back to that time ahead of the tournament getting underway when the main topic of conversation among Welsh rugby people was who would be playing in the centres over the course of the next two months.

Injuries to Jon Davies and Owen Watkin had brought into sharp focus the fact that actually the depth of midfielders in Wales was alarmingly poor. Steff Hughes of the Scarlets was the only potential option at the regions, while the merits of various wingers being shifted inside were discussed.

In the end new Wales head coach Wayne Pivac sprung a surprise on us with the selection of Saracens’ Nick Tompkins, qualified thanks to a Wrexham-born Grandmother, who impressed on a first step up to international level, while Owen Williams was also briefly involved as well.

Looking into the post-Coronavirus world though and it seems that issues in the Welsh midfield may continue as part of a wider backline change that is set to take place over the next few years.

On a general level players like Rhys Webb, Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny McNicholl and Liam Williams will all be at least 32 years old by the time the 2023 Rugby World Cup gets underway in France, while there have to be concerns over the long-term health of George North as he continues to take head knocks.

Then specifically in the centres the current first choice duo of Hadleigh Parkes and Jon Davies will both be 35 by the start of the World Cup, while Parkes has been linked with a move to Japan anyway, along with Owen Williams, potentially ending both their international careers with neither close to the 60-cap margin.

Hadleigh Parkes Fiji

Add in Nick Tompkins who’s potential deal with Cardiff Blues seems to be on the rocks over the type of move, with a season playing in the English Championship putting a question mark over his selection for Wales, and Wayne Pivac may have a huge problem on his hands.

There are answers though. One is Owen Watkin, a player who I think could become one of the best centres in the world if he gets the right run of games at international level, while two are a host of talented young midfielders entering first team ranks at the regions in the form of Ben Thomas, Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler and Kieran Williams.

The third answer is what I want to focus on from a Cardiff Blues perspective though, as Willis Halaholo prepares to make the step into the Wales jersey and see what he can do.

It may seem a bit hypocritical to suggest he’s the man to answer the call of the Welsh centre having pointed out the age of a number of players earlier in the piece. Halaholo will also be 33 by the time the next World Cup rolls around, but having not started playing professional rugby until he was 23, the miles are not in his legs in the same way.

He’s also had some time out over the last few months after picking up the knee injury that cost him a chance to impress against the Barbarians last November and possibly win a first cap during the Six Nations, but with his ACL tear not seeming to be as serious as Ellis Jenkins’, for example, and the impact of them generally lessening with modern medicine, Willis is well on the way to coming back stronger than ever.

Looking at his time with Cardiff Blues generally and certainly from a personality perspective Halaholo has become a huge favourite among the Arms Park faithful since arriving in October 2016, with his Twitter exclamations of ‘LESSSGOOOOO’ a regular motivating sight.

On the field it hasn’t all been as plain sailing though, despite still being a favourite as a player as well as a bloke.

It started well with a try on debut away at Benetton, going on to score six tries in each of his first two seasons with Cardiff Blues, giving him a record of 12 tries in 41 games as of the summer of 2018, playing a key role in the European Challenge Cup winning campaign.

willis-halaholo-treviso

However, at his own admission, the second half of the 2018/19 campaign was a tough one for Halaholo with form escaping him and the tribulations of not having much of a break since signing with us catching up with him.

Despite that Willis was still able to flash the quality that make many, including myself, believe he can step up to the international level effectively, with the main example being an almost single-handed systematic dismantling of Munster in September 2018.

There’s been some impressive performances from Cardiff Blues players down the years; Gethin Jenkins against Toulouse in 2009, Xavier Rush against Wasps in 2010, Robin Copeland against Toulon in 2013 and Olly Robinson against Gloucester in 2018, but Halaholo against Munster was right up there.

A strong showing in defence, during which he led the backline superbly as well as putting in a big individual performance, restricted the Irish side, before he put them to the sword in attack with a scintillating mix of powerful running, smart passing, clever offloads and of course the wicked side steps.

If that is the Halaholo who returns to the field next season then Wales will have the point of difference needed to cause other nations real problems as Wayne Pivac builds towards France 2023, as well as an answer to the question of who plays in the centre.

The hot stepper is coming, watch out world!

As Cardiff Blues should have been playing Munster this weekend in the Guinness Pro14, I will be posting clips from that 37-13 win at the Arms Park over on Twitter from 3pm this (Saturday) afternoon, @CardiffRugbyWeb.

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