Willis Halaholo emerged as one of the new stars of the Six Nations this season as the Cardiff Blues player completed his journey from New Zealand provincial player to Wales international. A quarter of a century ago, Dale McIntosh charted the same route and believes their progress underlines the continuing strength in their homeland as he tells Graham Thomas.
The rise of Willis Halaholo proves just how much depth there still is in New Zealand rugby, former Wales international Dale McIntosh has claimed.
Halaholo picked up a Six Nations championship medal with Wales this season – eight years after Wayne Pivac opted not to offer the Cardiff Blues centre a senior contract when they were together at Auckland.
The teenage Halaholo overcame that rejection to find success with the Hurricanes, who will feature in round seven of Super Rugby Aotearoa this weekend with the highlights shown on Sunday night on S4C.
But it was McIntosh who shaped the blueprint for all wandering Kiwis when he was the first New Zealander to be capped for Wales through residency back in 1996.
A quarter of a century later, Halaholo had to endure the same criticism and abuse that McIntosh suffered from those offended that anyone who makes their life in Wales should be allowed to put on a red jersey.
McIntosh’s wait for qualification was more than twice as long as the current three year rule and the current Merthyr coach – known throughout Welsh rugby as “Chief” – says: “I had to wait seven-and-a-half years for my cap which was a long time.
“I understand some of the emotions involved, if not the abuse. I played with Mefin Davies. So, I understand the passions involved about people coming into Wales – that it has to be for the right reasons and the qualification rules have to be reasonably strict.
“But I was proud as punch to play for Wales, and so were my family, and I’m sure Willis feels exactly the same.”
McIntosh was impressed by the impact Halaholo made for Wales in his debut Six Nations, even if he was concerned that his first appearance off the bench against Scotland looked initially as if it may not go to plan.
“He looked a bit hesitant at first,” says McIntosh. “I think he didn’t want to appear too arrogant or cocksure to begin with.
“I wanted him to believe in himself a bit more because he was in there due to the fact he is a very talented guy.
“But once he found his feet there was no stopping him and his understanding with Louis Rees-Zammit really got the best out of that kid.
“We just need to make sure the young guys are now playing in Wales. We can’t end up having 80 per cent of our guys in the team playing across the Bridge.”
McIntosh – who left his home near Lake Taupo as a teenager to end up making a new life in Pontypridd – still believes New Zealand produces the deepest of all rugby talent pools.
He has been watching the current Super Rugby Aotearoa series and says the ability of the Highlanders to inflict a shock defeat on the Crusaders last week simply underlines the strength of all five teams to rise to the occasion.
The Highlanders may have shaken up the standings by inflicting a first defeat on the mighty Crusaders but McIntosh expects normal service to resume.
“The Crusaders are such a precise team. Everything is done with such precision, in attack and defence so that when they go behind – and maybe even lose the odd game as they did last week – it doesn’t really faze them.
“They are such a good outfit and they still set the standards. But I still think New Zealand has so many players playing abroad at the moment that their rugby is not quite as strong overall as it used to be.
“The Hurricanes are struggling a bit, the Blues are improving, the Chiefs are playing well on occasion, and the Highlanders produced their best performance for a very long time in beating the Crusaders.”
The Highlanders’ victory came after coach Tony Brown axed six players for drinking at a house party, a brave call which left fellow coach McIntosh impressed.
“Tony Brown was re-igniting things. He was saying to people, ‘look, you’re not indispensable.’ And it worked, although it was a brave call because it might have blown up in his face.
“That’s just great coaching, to back yourself and your gut feeling.”
S4C – Sunday, 10.00pm: Clwb Rygbi: Super Rugby Aotearoa
Extended highlights from the Super Rugby Aotearoa, a competition between New Zealand’s five professional teams. This week’s programme will feature highlights from the weekend’s matches: Highlanders v Chiefs & Hurricanes v Crusaders.