Former Wales star says Johnny McNicholl and Willis Halaholo call-ups are 'so wrong'

Willis Halaholo, in Cardiff Blues colours, has been called up for Wales.
Willis Halaholo, in Cardiff Blues colours, has been called up for Wales.

Former Wales and Lions star Gavin Henson believes the decision to add Johnny McNicholl and Willis Halaholo to the Welsh rugby team is "so wrong".

There could be a controversial Wales backline next year featuring four New Zealand-born players after new coach Wayne Pivac on Tuesday (Wednesday NZ time) called up McNicholl and Halaholo in his first Wales squad to play the Barbarians next week.

Former Crusaders outside back McNicholl and ex-Hurricanes midfielder Halaholo have become available for Wales on residency grounds (three years) and both have qualified before the rule increases to five years on December 31, 2020.

As has former Crusaders outside back Johnny McNicholl.
As has former Crusaders outside back Johnny McNicholl.

The pair, both 29, have signalled their intentions of playing for Wales and Pivac, the national team's new coach replacing fellow Kiwi Warren Gatland, has selected them among five uncapped players in the 35-man squad to face the Baabaas.

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Henson, who never really lived up to his potential in test rugby from 2001-11, tweeted an image of the BBC's story on Pivac's selections of McNicholl and Halaholo, saying "this is so wrong", accompanied by an angry face emoji.

McNicholl was born in Christchurch and Halaholo in Auckland. Both moved to Wales in 2016 after the Mitre 10 Cup to join the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues respectively.

Pivac has welcomed them into the squad for the Barbarians match in Cardiff on November 30.

It will be Gatland's farewell to Wales after standing down as coach following the Rugby World Cup in Japan this month, although he will be coaching the Baabaas before returning home to lead the Chiefs in Super Rugby after 12 years in the UK in roles with Wales and the British and Irish Lions.

Chiefs CEO Michael Collins speaks about Warren Gatland's coaching team for 2020.

"I personally know a lot about Johnny McNicholl obviously and I had Willis in the Auckland age groups when I was coaching there, so I know his background," Pivac told Wales Online.

"They're both exciting attacking players. It's an opportunity for us to get Willis in for a week and have a look at him. We spoke to him earlier in the season about parts of his game we like and parts we think he can work on.

"It will be an interesting week to see how some players step up into a new environment and he's one of those players."

Welsh halfback Rhys Webb, who played two tests for the Lions against the All Blacks in 2017, is not eligible for Wales while he plays his club rugby for Toulon in France but he tweeted his support for McNicholl and Halaholo.

Gavin Henson, pictured playing for the Lions in 2005, said calling up the Kiwi par was so wrong.
Gavin Henson, pictured playing for the Lions in 2005, said calling up the Kiwi par was so wrong.

"Great to see a lot of new faces in the mix who have been putting their hand up week in week out (at) their regions. Enjoy every minute."

McNicholl last month said he would be honoured to represent Wales on the international stage but a potential test debut for him or Halaholo would be not until 2020. The match against the Barbarians does not count as a test.

"If I do get that opportunity, I would be very humbled and grateful and take it with both hands," he told Wales Online.

"I feel like, I've brought my partner over here, we've adapted the Welsh culture, we've lived here for three years. We've really embraced it.

"I've got a daughter now. She's Welsh, she was born here, she's going to pre-school here and I feel like if I do play for Wales, I'd be doing her and her home nation proud."

Also in the squad is Hunterville-born midfielder Hadleigh Parkes, who played for the Hurricanes in 2014 before joining Welsh club Scarlets.

His test debut came in 2017 after qualifying on residency grounds and he was a regular in the World Cup as Wales made the semifinals, losing 19-16 to South Africa before going down 40-17 to the All Blacks in the bronze final.

Another Kiwi, Auckland-born Gareth Anscombe, would have represented Wales at this year's World Cup but a knee injury suffered before the Japan tournament ruled him out.

Hadleigh Parkes was regular for Wales in the Rugby World Cup.
Hadleigh Parkes was regular for Wales in the Rugby World Cup.

Anscombe ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in September but the first five-eighth is scheduled to return in the middle of 2020 and he would be almost certain of a test comeback after playing a starring role when Wales won the Six Nations this year.

The former Chiefs and Blues playmaker qualifies for Wales through his his Cardiff-born mother and his test debut came in 2015.

It means Wales could field a backline including Anscombe, McNicholl, Parkes and Halaholo. While legitimate, it would be controversial nonetheless.

McNicholl played for Canterbury before heading for Wales.

"If I do that I would much like to play for Wales. But three years is a long time, so it isn't at the forefront of my mind at the moment," McNicholl said in an interview with Stuff in 2016, when his move to Scarlets was confirmed in April.

Gareth Anscombe has played for Wales since 2015.
Gareth Anscombe has played for Wales since 2015.

Halalolo played a season for Waikato before his move to Cardiff.

"That's something that's on the table," Halaholo told Stuff in 2016, when asked if he would consider playing for Wales.

"I'm looking to go there and stay for three years. If the opportunity comes [to play for Wales], playing for another country, whatever goes, I'll go for it."

The earliest test either could play would be the opening round of next year's Six Nations when Wales host Italy in Cardiff on February 1.

The Wales squad for the Barbarians includes 22 members of their World Cup squad and it will be the first match as coach for Pivac, who succeeds Gatland after five years in charge of Scarlets.


Wales squad for Barbarians

Forwards: Elliot Dee, Ryan Elias, Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Wyn Jones, Nicky Smith, Leon Brown, Samson Lee, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Adam Beard, Bradley Davies, Seb Davies, Taine Basham, Ollie Griffiths, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Ross Moriarty, Aaron Shingler, Justin Tipuric, Aaron Wainwright.

Backs: Aled Davies, Gareth Davies, Tomos Williams, Sam Davies, Jarrod Evans, Willis Halaholo, Hadleigh Parkes, Owen Watkin, Owen Lane, Josh Adams, Steff Evans, Ashton Hewitt, Johnny McNicholl, Hallam Amos, Leigh Halfpenny.