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As exhilarating as Taqele Naiyaravoro’s tackle-shredding runs have been over the last month, each one should also leave Australian rugby fans feeling a little bit dejected.
Like the defenders he bangs out of the way and onto the ground, Waratahs and Wallabies supporters may feel a bit low.
Why has it taken this long for the beastly winger to get fit? And perhaps the most lamentable part? He’s heading overseas in a few months to join Northampton.
Naiyaravoro at the moment resembles – excuse the cliché – a human wrecking ball. I suppose the problem in the past hasn’t been the wrecking, but the ability to bounce back for another run given his often well-rounded physique.
(That’s fat shaming, some of you scream! Look over there – Israel Folau reckons gays are going to hell. Go pick on him some more.)
There’s plenty of reasons why Naiyaravoro might have finally got into his rhythm for the Tahs this season, but it’s a safe bet to assume a large part of it is because he’s stripped a fair few kegs off his massive frame.
He’s been Australia’s best winger in Super Rugby so far this year, and it wouldn’t be ridiculous to say he’s the form winger of the competition.
It’s over the top to say Naiyaravoro’s charges are reminiscent of Jonah Lomu, but he’s looking a lot like some of the best wide-running bulldozers of the last few years. Think Waisake Naholo, Julian Savea, Nemani Nadolo, Alesana Tuilagi. John Kirwan?
We’re told he arrived at Waratahs pre-season at 136kg. The response from the Tahs was to not let him lift a weight and flog him in the cardio room. The result was he dropped down to 125kg. A tall man, at 195cm, that’s an impressive athlete given his speed and power. That puts him in the monster category, among the meanest tight ends in the NFL such as Rob ‘The Gronk’ Gronkowski.
Only time will tell if he can sustain his form over the rest of the Super season. But it’s worth asking the question – why has it taken this long for the Waratahs to get Naiyaravoro fit?
He signed with the Tahs from the Wests Tigers in 2014 and after making only a handful of appearances that season, headed over for a stint with the Glasgow Warriors.
Michael Cheika was impressed enough that Naiyaravoro made his Wallabies debut in the one-off Test against the United States in Chicago in 2015 – ensuring that he couldn’t play for his native Fiji – but he didn’t go on to play in the World Cup a few months later.
But he was back in Australia in the middle of 2016 and coming off the bench, scored a try for the Wallabies in the third Test against England in Sydney.
He’s played 37 Super Rugby games for the Tahs now. He’s shown glimpses that he’s the consistent line-breaker every team craves in a game in which getting over the advantage line can be so difficult. But over the last month he’s been at his best. The way he swatted off Henry Speight a few weeks ago was brutal. He made him look silly.
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The Waratahs coaching staff probably felt they had to show some tough love now, or never. Had they been too lenient on him fitness-wise? Probably.
Would the Crusaders have whipped him into shape earlier? It happened to Nemani Nadolo, who went from Sydney club rugby with Randwick to stints in France and Japan and then blossomed into a destructive winger in Christchurch.
Perhaps they were hoping Naiyaravoro was a Merv Hughes case – in that he was best when he was happiest, which was when he could eat what he wanted. Remember big Merv lost a whole lot of weight over one off-season, and his bowling fell apart. Of course, fast bowling and bowling over your opposite winger are two wildly different things.
And, of course, you can’t baby-sit professional athletes, as the Isael Folau Twitter flare-up shows. They’ve got to take responsibility for their preparation when they leave the training paddock. Waratahs staff can’t be standing with Naiyaravoro in the kitchen, ditching the pizza and adding the broccoli. Or escort him home past Maccas, Oporto and KFC.
The vast majority of pro athletes are highly self-motivated in their quest for excellence. Rugby isn’t any different, although perhaps the props traditionally are the ones who can get away with carrying a bit of extra padding and need a bit of close attention.
But when it comes to weight it only takes a quick quantitative test to measure diet discipline. The scales are purely objective. It’s easy to find out who needs a kick up the bum.
The NRL can be ruthless when it comes to training and conditioning markers. Only a few months ago, the case of Moses Suli highlighted this. The 19-year-old’s weight had ballooned from 110kg to 125kg, forcing the Wests Tigers to release him from his $1.3 million three-year deal. Canterbury swooped but soon after released the powerful outside back because of his poor attitude towards training.
It’s legitimate to ask why it’s taken this long to get Naiyaravoro fit, but pointless trying to pin blame on anyone. Credit has to go to the coaching and conditioning staff who have got the winger fresh and firing, for he’s made a huge difference for the Waratahs. He’s looking very much like a starting Wallabies winger this season, although is it worth picking a player who is close to jumping on a plane to England?
Is it too early to entertain the possibility of Rugby Australia buying out his Northampton Saints contract? Or offering a degree of compensation. Yep. But his progress over the next few months will be intriguing given the early signs.
Remember he’s only 26 so he’s coming into some good years. While he’s been demolishing defenders down the left-hand touchline, there’s little doubt that Tahs coach Daryl Gibson and their attack coach, Chris Malone, will want to bring Naiyaravoro further infield and get him running off Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and even Jake Gordon.
And you don’t even have to get 80 minutes out of Naiyaravoro either. He played a full game against the Sunwolves last weekend, but he would still make a huge impact in as little as 55 minutes.
And one facet that he hasn’t been tested too much in but looms as a deficiency is how quick he is to retreat for kicks. When the Tahs play four Kiwi teams in May, he will get a good workout.
Every defender that Naiyaravoro brushes away feels a bit bittersweet. It’s taken too long to get him in this shape. Even if he’ll be in Europe in a few months, we will need to soak up what remains for him in Super Rugby.
Combining his size and power makes him a unique player and one that draws defenders in as much as fans. Hopefully he stays fit. And hopefully he finds a way to stay put in Australia.