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Sport The impressive Willis Halaholo Wales debut that shows he's ready-made for international rugby

21:30  14 february  2021
21:30  14 february  2021 Source:   walesonline.co.uk

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Well, if that’s what Willis Halaholo can do after just a couple of days in camp, imagine what he will be like with a couple of weeks under his belt!

Given the very limited training time he had with the Wales squad following his midweek call-up, it really was an impressive display from the Cardiff Blues centre up in Murrayfield and one which more than justified his selection.

The injury to Leigh Halfpenny saw him thrown in at the deep end for his debut after little more than half an hour, with the men in red trailing Scotland 17-3.

But far from sinking without trace, Halaholo more than stayed afloat as he played a significant part in helping secure a thrilling 25-24 comeback victory.

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Some players are just made for international rugby and it looks as though Halaholo may be one of them.

Of course, while he’s a new name at this level - literally so with him appearing as Uilisi Halaholo on the team-sheet - he is no stranger to big matches.

It’s often forgotten he was the starting inside centre when the Hurricanes won the 2016 Super Rugby title, beating the Lions 20-3 in the final in Wellington.

He also starred in the Blues’ memorable European Challenge Cup final triumph over Gloucester in Bilbao back in 2018.

So he’s someone who thrives on the big stage and he showed that again on Saturday.

From the moment he came onto the field, Halaholo looked at home in the environment, with his experience and class coming to the fore.

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He just oozed confidence and seemed to be relishing the opportunity, smiling his way through it.

What he has above all is time, which is such a rare commodity in the 100 mile an hour world of international sport.

You either have or you don’t and he does.

He has time on the ball, he has time in defence - and it makes such a difference.

What was also noticeable was how vocal Halaholo was. He really took charge of things in midfield, calling the shots and organising the defence.

While Test rugby hasn't come until the age of 30, that does mean he has got a a lot of miles on the clock and a lot of acquired knowledge to draw on.

That all showed through.

It’s his fancy footwork which has most caught the eye since his arrival in Cardiff, with his side-stepping, defence-splitting ability.

But for much of his debut, it was more prosaic qualities that were apparent.

Halaholo was calm, assured, steady and organised, solid with no mistakes. It was almost a bit like watching a certain Hadleigh Parkes!

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He was strong in defence, shutting down his channel, while he pulled off a huge turnover just at a point where Scotland were building momentum in the second half.

To have a back who can contribute like that over the ball is such a bonus.

Then, as the game wore on, so his attacking threat came more to the fore.

He seemed to forge a pretty instant rapport with replacement fly-half Callum Sheedy, the pair dovetailing to excellent effect within minutes of linking up.

Swopping roles, it was Halaholo who went to first receiver from a ruck inside the Scottish 22 and showed nice hands to feed Sheedy who had looped behind him, with the Bristol pivot hitting the line-breaking Louis Rees-Zammit ahead of Liam Williams crossing.

Then, 11 minutes from time, came the match-winning moment.

It was Rees-Zammit who delivered the superb chip and chase finish, but Halaholo’s part in the score should not be overlooked.

Coming on a disguised run, he took a pass from Adam Beard in midfield and set off on an angled line, moving right.

You could see the Scots didn’t quite know how to read him from the way they stood off and that was all the invitation he needed.

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Attacking the outside shoulder of Chris Harris, he drew in the uncertain Duhan van der Merwe and then fired out pass which Rees-Zammit was able to take in his stride.

By dragging Van der Merwe in off his wing, Halaholo had put Rees-Zammit in space outside his opposite number and the rest, as they say, is history.

As I said earlier, it’s a performance which fully justified his selection.

Wayne Pivac’s decision to draft him into the squad in response to injuries in the centre had met with a mixed response.

There were those who argued Jamie Roberts should have been recalled instead on the back of his form for the Dragons.

Then there were those who expressed their opposition to the three-year residency rule, through which the Auckland-born Halaholo is eligible for Wales.

Now you can have a discussion about the merits of individual players by all means.

At the end of the day, that comes down to personal preference, with the coach having the ultimate say.

You are also fully entitled to give an opinion on the residency rule.

But no-one has the right to tell someone else what their nationality is in this day and age.

Nor can you question Halahola’s commitment to this country.

He has made it his home, with two of his four daughters born here, and really thrown himself into Cardiff rugby, forging a close bond with the supporters.

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As he puts it himself: “This country is solidified in my heart.”

He has been here now for four and a half years, which is longer than a lot of other people who have worn the three feathers have.

Is someone who has never resided in Wales and qualifies through a grandparent somehow more Welsh than someone who has lived here for close on five years?

I feel it’s a daft argument.

At the end of the day, if you are eligible - by whatever means - you are eligible and that’s it.

As a coach, you look at the players who are qualified and available to you and pick the ones you want. End of story.

We should just be happy that Halaholo wants to play for Wales, all the more so after his debut display in Edinburgh.

The best comment I have seen on the subject was this one on Twitter.

“What can be more Welsh than someone choosing to be Welsh ? The rest of us are just lucky.”

Well said.

Public support for Halaholo was reflected pre-match by fans changing their Twitter profiles to include a picture of the centre and he responded by doing his adopted country proud.

As a result, he has now handed Pivac something of a selection dilemma for the Triple Crown game against England in a fortnight.

If everyone is passed fit, Pivac will have to perm two centres out of six contenders - Halaholo, Johnny Williams, Jonathan Davies, George North, Nick Tompkins and Owen Watkin.

It will be a big call, but Sean Alfred Uilisi Halaholo has certainly given him a name to conjure with and food for thought.

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