Taqele Naiyaravoro was one that got away from Australian rugby.
The Fijian-born flyer fled his adopted homeland nearly 18 months ago to link up with the Northampton Saints of the English Premiership.
Naiyaravoro had been a powerful and productive presence on the flanks in his days with the Waratahs. He spent five seasons over two stints with the sky-blue side, scoring 29 tries in 47 matches. During his final season in 2018, he set a single season club record with 15 five-pointers.
Oh, how the Tahs missed Big T last year. His loss, as well as the mid-season axing of another prolific try-scorer, resulted in the Waratahs scoring 40 less tries (yes, that many!) than they did the previous season. They also slumped from nine wins to six and missed the playoffs for the third time in four years.
His impressive Super Rugby performances led to two cups of coffee with the Wallabies, one each in 2015 and 2016. Naiyaravoro was chuffed to get his shot at international rugby.
“They were definitely among the highlights of my career. Right up there with playing for the Barbarians and the World XV,” he says.
Naiyaravoro was undoubtedly the biggest man to ever play on the wing for Australia. With his massive six foot five, 130kg frame, he has often been compared to the great Jonah Lomu.
Like the former All Blacks winger, Naiyaravoro possesses a frightening mix of size, power and speed. The 28-year-old admits to being an admirer of the late Lomu.
“He was one of my idols growing up and somebody that I looked up to and always tried to copy his style of play. He paved the way for wingers like me to play the game now,” he says.
Naiyaravoro put his Lomu-esque kit bag to good use by scoring a try in both of his matches in the green-and-gold jersey. But that’s all that he would be allowed to get.
The Wallabies selectors have shown a propensity in recent times to select a different type of winger. Those called upon have invariably possessed accomplished kicking skills and the ability to defuse high balls. Think Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell.
Naiyaravoro just did not fit that mould. Understandably, as a result of being repeatedly snubbed, he began to explore his options.
“There was no point in staying (in Australia) as opportunities with the Wallabies weren’t there. I wasn’t getting any international duties, so I wanted to challenge myself elsewhere,” he says.
Australia’s loss has been Northampton’s gain. Naiyaravoro has settled perfectly into the East Midlands where he has been one of the English Premiership’s best players since he arrived early in the 2018-19 season.
Naiyaravoro’s powerful bursts have been too hot for many Premiership defenders to handle. The gigantic winger has made a habit of blasting hapless bodies aside like bowling pins and setting the Saints up for scoring opportunities.
His stats reflect his dominance. In his debut season, Naiyaravoro led the competition in three different categories: metres gained, defenders beaten and clean breaks.
He was also second in the league in offloads and scored ten tries in all competitions. At times he genuinely looked like a man among boys.
Northampton certainly benefited from his contributions. They surged up the ladder last season to make their first finals appearance in four years. They also took home some silverware by capturing the inaugural English Premiership Cup.
The big man has been just as influential so far in his second campaign. He still steamrolls defenders for fun, but also has become more involved with the play. He credits a full preseason with helping him become fitter and (a little bit!) lighter this campaign.
“I put a lot of hard work into the preseason. My goal was to get back to the weight that I was with the Tahs, and now that I have it’s been working out really well for me. The main challenge now is to keep that level of performance going consistently,” he says.
With Naiyaravoro’s improved motor helping him to get his hands on the ball more often, Northampton have continued to prosper. They have won six out of their first eight games and currently sit second on the table.
Some of his contributions have been seismic. With his team trailing in the dying minutes at Wasps in Round 8, Naiyaravoro barged over for a match-winning try. Northampton had looked destined to lose after being reduced to 13 men late in the contest.
Saints fans will continue to be spoiled by the box-office play of their imported winger for several more years to come. He signed a two-year contract extension last October, which will keep him at Franklin’s Gardens until the end of the 2021-22 season.
A return to international rugby may also be in the pipeline. Just don’t expect it to come with the Wallabies. Naiyarovoro’s next chance may actually come with his native Fiji.
Australia continues to uphold the controversial ‘Giteau Law’ for overseas-based players. Its criteria stipulates Aussies playing abroad must have previously accrued at least 60 Wallabies caps to be eligible for selection.
Fijian rugby picks their players regardless of where they are based. Naiyarovoro has represented Australia, of course, but there is a loophole that could enable him to also represent his nation of birth. It would involve him first representing the Fijian sevens team in an Olympic qualifier, thereby essentially changing his nationality in World Rugby’s eyes.
Perhaps Australia will consider altering (or axing) the aforementioned law in the future. Changing it could enable players of Naiyaravoro’s calibre to keep contributing to the national team.
As for now, though, one of Australia’s most destructive players has bolted – most probably never to return.
Taqele Naiyaravoro’s CV
• Two Wallabies caps
• 47 Waratahs caps
• 22 Glasgow Warriors caps
• 41 Northampton Saints caps
• 13 Panasonic Wild Knights caps
• One Super Rugby title (2014)
• One Premiership Cup title (2019)
• 15 tries in one season (Waratahs record)
• Also represented: Barbarians twice (vs South Africa and England), World XV (vs Japan), Sydney Rams (NRC), West Harbour (Shute Shield), Parramatta (Shute Shield), Otahuhu RC (Auckland), Wests Tigers (NSW Premiership Cup)
Note: This article originally stated Naiyaravoro no longer has any eligibility barriers to playing for Fiji. This is incorrect, and the article has been updated to reflect as much.