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Coach's faith launches Halaholo

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Matt Manukia     10 Oct 2013     Getty Images

"What a waste."

The repeated echoes of those words make it hard for Willis Halaholo to accept what he sees in the mirror as he wakes in the basement of his in-laws' house in the Auckland suburb of Te Atatu.

Nearby, his wife and four-year-old daughter lay sleeping not knowing the regret he conceals beneath the overalls, boots and sweatshirt he puts on before heading off to clean heavy machinery at a local yard.

Once the week of scouring mud and grease is over, memories of his high school glory days are summoned as he watches the successes of so many former team-mates in real time on his television. Their smiles confirm Halaholo isn't where he wants to be.

Club rooms across the country are filled with such stories. Men from an era gone by dwell on the mistakes that denied them their seemingly inevitable cult status.

Now the premier second five-eighths for Southland, Halaholo, 23, looks back on those tough times and admitted he wasn't confident about what track his life could have taken had he not made one last-ditch attempt to turn things around.

It took more than many would appreciate to break free from a culture of heavy drinking, one that saw him balloon to over 117 kilograms. It's a stage many fail to return from in time to compete at first class level.

He's also quick to acknowledge he is indebted to a rookie ITM Cup coach that was game enough to take a serious leap of faith.

When Southland assistant coach Mark Ozich packed up his family and left the City of Sails for Invercargill in 2012, he never thought he'd hold the key to what would possibly be Halaholo's 'last chance'.

Sent back up north for a weekend on scouting duties, he received a tip that Suburbs, and their star No.12, were not to be missed. Halaholo, who was injured, did not play.

Although the two had met before, Halaholo's axing from Auckland's elite academy due to his lack of commitment left a black mark next to his name which turned coaches away.

Without any proof that there had been a change in attitude, it would have been easy to move on to the next prospect. Instead, Ozich nervously threw out a life line and began a journey which Halaholo continues in Friday's Ranfurly Shield challenge against Counties Manukau.

The enterprising midfielder has made significant waves since making his starting debut against Waikato in round four. That 20-16 win snapped a three-game losing streak and since then Southland has won four of its last six games.

"I'm loving the rugby life," Halaholo said.

"It doesn't get better than getting paid to do what you love."

A noted playmaker equipped with an elusive running game, Halaholo has already fielded inquiries from curious Super Rugby coaches impressed by his recent performances.

Of all people, Ozich knows how significant that achievement is.

"He showed up this year and he did a 15 on the Yoyo. He was struggling," Ozich said of Halaholo's first week in the deep south.

"We'd expect someone do over 18 to play ITM Cup in the midfield."

Demanding an immediate return for their investment, Southland officials began to seriously doubt Ozich's experiment.

"We pulled him aside and the first thing he said was: 'I know my body and I know what I'm capable of. Don't send me back. Trust me, I'll do the work and you'll see,'" Ozich said.

And so, with his reputation on the line, the first-year coach urged those sceptics to be patient while the 'rough edges' were smoothed over. A schedule of three training sessions per day were tough at first, but now a much leaner and more agile Halaholo has defences on high alert when he gets ball in hand.

His progress is hard not to notice and has raised alarm bells in shield country where Counties coach Tana Umaga has been devising schemes to contain the threat.

"With Willis Halaholo there they've got a really penetrative backline," Umaga said.

"He played his club rugby in Auckland and he's taken his opportunity down in Southland and now he's come a lot closer to Super Rugby.

"That's great for him, there's so much player depth out there in Auckland and sometimes they can't keep them all so they've got to go somewhere else to do that."

Southland stand to gain a semi-final berth if they are successful in returning the Log o'Wood, which left Southland in 2011, to the trophy cabinet at Rugby Park.

Coach David Henderson has admittedly put the focus on silverware to the side and instead wants his side to achieve the goal they set out with in the preseason.

Still, that won't keep Halaholo, or his team-mates, using the occasion as motivation.

"When we're out in public, we get reminded every day," said Halaholo.

"Three or four people will come up to us and say 'bring that shield back'. Whoppa [captain Jamie Mackintosh] and the coaches don't really need to remind us how important it is to the region."

A dominant performance against Counties, who have proven to be worthy shield holders, would push Halaholo closer to a Super Rugby dream.

When asked how much he wants it, he revealed that he turned down his native Tonga to focus on the programme he has committed to in Invercargill.

"He's got a way to go but now that he's got a foot in the door, he's not going to let it go. He really wants it and he's really enjoying the environment down here," Ozich said.

"I can't see him not going to higher honours if he can maintain that momentum and the work ethic.

"There's certainly people out there who are looking at him."

Highlanders boss Jamie Joseph is said to be one of those people.

But with all the midfield spots secured weeks ago, a wider training squad contract may be the likely option.

The general consensus is that it is only a matter of time before Halaholo enters the higher echelons of rugby. His wife, Sandra, always knew that even when he had given up.

"To be honest, she's always been there. I was at my lowest and she still told me every night that I could still make something out of rugby," he said.

"She just believed in me up until now."

It's fair to say Halaholo has a few more believers now.