Super Rugby-winning centre Willis Halaholo is due to make his Cardiff Blues debut on Friday night and head coach Danny Wilson expects the Kiwi to light up the Guinness PRO12 before long.
Halaholo, the former understudy of All Blacks legends Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, was one of the Hurricanes’ standout stars as they won their maiden Super Rugby title in August.
Now he is set to make his mark in a Blues jersey against Benetton Treviso – having signed a three-year contract earlier this year – alongside former Hurricanes teammate Rey Lee-Lo in the centres.
Wilson has made eight changes to his team, including a first regional outing for Wales Under-20s wing Rhun Williams, as he looks to arrest a run of three Guinness PRO12 defeats.
And though he is not expecting miracles from Halaholo on debut, Wilson is excited to see what his new charge can do.
Wilson said: “He may take a little time to settle into the way we play, the structures and the rest of it, especially in the heat of the moment, but from an individual point of view he looks a class act.
“Most people who have watched him play will say his attacking strength is pretty obvious. He is powerful, he has good footwork and he played starting centre in the Hurricanes side that have just won the Super Rugby title so he comes with good pedigree.
“We have worked on having a bit more urgency on attack and defence, getting into our attacking shape a bit quicker than against the Scarlets and likewise into our defensive positions.
“Treviso are a very different proposition at home to what they are away, you only get a grip of that once you experience it. They are a tough side to beat at their place.
“We will go there with a group that will learn from being out there and that experience, but with a target to win the game.”
Treviso have proved a banana skin for the Welsh regions in recent times as the Italians have won three of their four last home games against teams from the country.
But the Blues have been resilient on their travels of late having suffered just one loss in six away games in all competitions – and Wilson says this is a must-win game as far as their top-six credentials are concerned.
“It’s a big achievement when you go to those places and win. It was certainly a big achievement going to Zebre and winning. We go to Treviso and our aim is exactly the same,” he added.
“If you are going to be challenging for things and in the top six, those are the types of games you go and win.
“As we know many sides go to Treviso and slip up or find it very difficult, we are not taking this lightly; we know it will be a great win if we can get it.”
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 12, Treviso won 3, Cardiff Blues won 8 with 1 match drawn.
At Stadio Monigo, 8.15pm local time (7.15pm UK & Ireland)
Live on Sky Sports
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU, 53rd competition game)
Assistant Referees: Dewi Phillips (WRU), Andrea Piardi (FIR)
Citing Commissioner: Maurizio Vancini (FIR)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (IRFU)
Willis Halaholo grabbed a second-half try on his Cardiff Blues debut to lift his side to a 34-28 victory over Treviso at Stadio Monigo.
Treviso looked to be on course for just their second Guinness PRO12 victory of the season shortly after half-time as Abraham Steyn crossed for their fourth try of the game, following first-half efforts from Dean Budd, Alberto Sgarbi and Michael Tagicakibau.
But Cardiff came into this fixture having lost just one of their last six away games in all competitions and refused to lie down.
Macauley Cook grabbed their second try after Rhun Williams – another Blues debutant – and Steven Shingler’s boot had kept the visitors in the contest before the break.
And Halaholo scored what proved to be the winning try just after the hour mark as Treviso had to settle for two bonus points and remain rooted to the foot of the table.
Cardiff Blues started the game on the front foot and were enjoying possession in Treviso territory before Williams marked his debut with a try inside the sixth minute. The ball was passed from right to left and found its way into Williams’ hands, the young winger stepping inside before going over near the posts to hand Shingler the easy conversion.
But this only served to wake Treviso up and a loose kick allowed the home side to pressure the Blues line, and after a try-saving tackle from Halaholo – another Cardiff debutant – the Italians were level as Budd barged his way over at the second attempt and Ian McKinley added the extras.
And on 17 minutes the home side found themselves in the lead as McKinley broke forward and found Sgarbi on his shoulder, with the centre dotting down under the posts and McKinley converting.
The Blues were shell-shocked but Shingler brought them back to within a point of their hosts with two penalties, the latter on 27 minutes following a tackle in the air at a lineout.
A blood injury to captain Matthew Rees stemmed the Blues’ flow and when play resumed a chip over the top had Treviso threatening again, only for Lloyd Williams to turn the ball over.
However, that only delayed the home side as on 34 minutes some quick Treviso hands saw Tagicakibau dive over in the corner, with McKinley nailing the tough conversion.
Shingler once again reduced the arrears with a long-range penalty on 37 minutes but Treviso lead 21-16 at half-time.
And the Italians started on the front foot after the restart and after they were held up over the line were able to celebrate a fourth try as a cross-field kick found Steyn in space and he touched down for the bonus point, with McKinley converting.
But Cardiff Blues were back in the game on 52 minutes as Cook found space on the outside to slide over, although they remained a converted try behind as Shingler missed from the tee.
The visitors were on the front foot now and Shingler made up for his last kick with a penalty to further reduce the arrears, however he couldn’t repeat the trick from 45m out after Treviso were pinged at a scrum.
But the Blues were in front again on 64 minutes as Halaholo helped himself to a debut try, showing great feet to beat the final man after quick hands from an over-thrown Treviso lineout, Shingler nudging Cardiff three points ahead with the conversion.
Treviso looked to immediately re-take the lead but were denied by a last-ditch Cardiff challenge, with Shingler sealing the win with a late penalty at the other end.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final
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