Waisake Naholo believes the All Blacks will raise their game for the “once in a lifetime” chance to sink the British and Irish Lions.
Naholo thundered home for a smartly-taken try as the Highlanders toppled the Lions 23-22 in Dunedin on Tuesday in a performance he hopes can secure him a starting berth for the three-Test series.
The Fiji-born flyer was released by the All Blacks to face the Lions in Highlanders colours as he sharpens up after hamstring trouble.
The Lions can expect to face the 26-year-old again in the first Test at Eden Park on June 24 – and Naholo has tipped New Zealand to hit new heights for a series that only rolls into town once every 12 years.
“Every player always raises their game when they join up with the All Blacks,” said Naholo. “The expectation demands that and nothing less; so the level has to go up again. So it should be tougher for the Lions.
“The All Blacks are always massively prepared for every team and every challenge. Facing the Lions in a Test series is a once in a lifetime chance, and everyone knows how big that is.”
But for a fine last-ditch tackle from Jared Payne, Naholo would have swept in for two tries against the Lions at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.
The potent strike runner hopes he has done enough to convince All Blacks boss Steve Hansen he is worthy of a starting jersey for the Lions series. Naholo also insisted, however, that the All Blacks will not take the Lions lightly, despite the tourists only having ever won one Test series in New Zealand.
“I was just excited for an opportunity like this, and hopefully I made a statement for the All Blacks,” said Naholo. “I was hungry, excited and just keen to get my hands on the ball. Tuesday’s game was like a Test match, the speed, intensity and collisions.
“It’s massive for the Highlanders to beat the Lions, it’s great for all the boys and everyone there. But the Lions were really tough. They keep changing their team and you don’t know what their strongest team is yet.
“I certainly don’t think the All Blacks will underestimate the Lions. The Lions could put out a totally different team against the All Blacks, so we just have to see what happens now.”