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The Maori Knew

All Black Waisake Naholo’s rapid comeback from a broken leg is no surprise to those who know anything about traditional Maori healing in New Zealand. The leaves used by Naholo’s
11 Oct 2015 10:22
The Maori Knew
The leaves used by Naholo’s uncle, the village doctor, to mend the star rugby winger’s fractured fibula are from a plant called kawakawarau, a version of which – kawakawa - grows abundantly in the New Zealand bush and is still used by Maori healers to treat ailments ranging from rheumatism to gonorrhoea.

All Black Waisake Naholo’s rapid comeback from a broken leg is no surprise to those who know anything about traditional Maori healing in New Zealand.

The leaves used by Naholo’s uncle, the village doctor, to mend the star rugby winger’s fractured fibula are from a plant called kawakawarau, a version of which – kawakawa – grows abundantly in the New Zealand bush and is still used by Maori healers to treat ailments ranging from rheumatism to gonorrhoea.

Naholo recognised the plant in New Zealand when he arrived in 2009 as a 17-year-old: “It grows much bigger here than back home,” he says.

“In fact, it’s getting quite rare round our village [Nadroumai], to the point where anyone finding it in the bush is asked not to touch it.”

Naholo returned to Fiji for the eight-day treatment on August 5, after his uncle Isei Naiova rang him and said he had better come home and get it done if he wanted to make the All Blacks team for the Rugby World Cup.

He didn’t hesitate. He’d already had two previous leg injuries – one to a knee and the other a “popped” hip – fixed by Naiova. It involved his uncle re-setting the break and then binding it with the leaves.

The injury, suffered during Naholo’s sole pre-World Cup test match for the All Blacks, against Argentina on July 7, was originally thought by New Zealand Rugby to spell the end of the player’s chances of making the World Cup.

After conventional medical tests (including X-rays) following his return home on August 14, he was a shock selection in the Rugby World Cup squad.

As expected he missed the first two pool matches at the Rugby World Cup, against Argentina and Namibia, but played in the third match against Georgia last week, and was in the starting side for the match against Tonga in Newcastle yesterday.

The Taranaki and Highlanders star scored a scintillating try with his first touch against Georgia, but is in a battle with Nehe Milner-Skudder to nail down the right wing spot for the playoffs as a quarterfinal looms in Cardiff against either France or Ireland on October 18.

Miracle cure

The story of Naholo’s miracle cure will not go away. The British press have been captivated by the reports, though All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has tired of the constant line of questioning around Naholo.

“There’s been a lot of talk about miracle cure and all of that, but he’s come back where we expected he’d come back. It’s a wee bit strong to say he actually broke his leg,” Hansen said in a recent interview, when quizzed by a member of the British press.

While scepticism about the healing began emerging from mainstream medical sources in New Zealand only hours after the All Blacks team announcement on August 30, there is Western-based scientific evidence to support claims the kawakawarau leaf treatment helped shorten Naholo’s healing time.

In New Zealand, kawakawa is used in traditional Maori medicine to this day. Maori people brought the plant with them when they migrated here from the Pacific more than 1000 years ago.

New Zealand Maori coach Colin Cooper – who is Naholo’s provincial rugby coach at Taranaki – says he was not surprised by his player’s rapid recovery. He has seen it before, particularly with knee injuries.

Former All Blacks doctor John Mayhew has also been reported saying the recovery was “not a surprise”, but for different reasons. He believed the All Blacks medical team over-estimated Naholo’s recovery time. He was not aware of any herbal remedies that help fractures to heal.

Other Fijian plants used for broken bones and fractures include a tree called vesiwai (pongamia pinnata pierre); a creeping vine named drautolu (vigna marina fabaceae – common English name the beach bean); a weed with anti-inflammatory qualities called totowiwi (oxalis corniculata oxalidaceae – English name wood sorrel); the beach hibiscus called vauleka or vau in Fiji (tiliaceus malvaceae); and the Indian pennywort creeper called totodro (centella asiatica urban apiaceae).

Nadroumai visit

In a visit to Naholo’s village in Fiji in early August, New Plymouth photographer Rob Tucker found the player’s uncle in hot demand: “Isei Naiova is a busy man, judging from the number of times his cellphone rings,” he recalls.

A relative told him it was people ringing up for appointments. It was a measure of Naiova’s success using traditional Fijian medicine and tropical plants to treat human ailments.

As Tucker observed it, Naholo’s journey home would have taken him south from the international airport at Fiji’s capital, Nadi, an hour’s drive on Queens Rd and then a loose metal affair heading inland from the coast for the last six kilometres.

“Into the bush. There’s sugarcane growing, and horses running loose on the road.”

He reckoned there would have been about 200 eager souls waiting in Nadroumai for Naholo’s return, had he let them know he was coming home for a holiday … and the treatment.

But he didn’t, not even his parents. “I hate a fuss,” Naholo said prior to the trip home. “I’ll just walk in the door and surprise them.”

They reckon at least 200 people, some from neighbouring villages, gather outside Aporosa Naholo’s house when his son is playing. Waisake shouted them a satellite aerial and a 32-inch TV. It’s the only one in the village, so everyone comes to sit outside and watch when there’s a big game. When not in use, the precious telly sits with a cover over it in the house.

“I wanted to buy them a bigger one, but they said that was big enough.”

Of more urgent need is an extra rugby ball or three. The village usually has only one, and it has to be locked away for safe-keeping when the bigger players aren’t using it. The kids have to play with a soft-drink bottle wrapped in a teeshirt, or just a bundle of teeshirts wound up tightly.

That’s how Naholo started when he was five years old. These days, there’s a few round balls for the littlies to kick about. It’s where the All Black learned to duck and dive and outrun just about anyone, in games of touch and sevens. Fun stuff, but serious, too: the young players spend time doing proper warm-up exercises before they hit the village field, with its single set of goalposts.

How Naholo got to be a star rugby player in New Zealand is a typical story in many ways

After three years of high school in Fiji, at age 17 Waisake Naholo Ratunideuba took up an offer from his uncle, Meli Nauga, to come over to Wanganui.

Meatworker Nauga had arrived there in the 1990s and played a few games on the wing for Wanganui in the middle of that decade.

Naholo attended Wanganui City College, and was almost immediately selected for Wanganui’s 2009 provincial rugby side, where he scored six tries in 11 matches.

He recalls during one game seeing a couple of Taranaki union people on the sideline giving him the once over. One was chief executive Mike Collins, who offered him a place in the province’s rugby academy.

That led to a year of working as a roofer in New Plymouth and playing club rugby and for the province’s the development squad. He landed his first contract in 2011, when he was also was selected for the national under-20s team that defended its world championship in Italy.

Unsurprisingly, he played 7s for Taranaki, too, catching the eye of national coach Gordon Tietjens, who included him in the New Zealand team at the 2012 world series tournament in Wellington.

Super Rugby beckoned, and after involvement in the Hurricanes’ wider training group in 2012, he was picked up by the Blues for 2013. In 2015, he switched to the Highlanders, scoring 13 tries and winning a title as his side overpowered the Hurricanes in a thrilling final in Wellington.

He was one of the standout players in Super Rugby with his dynamic ability to beat defenders and break tackles thanks to his extreme pace. His X-factor was obvious and he was tipped by Stuff rugby writer Liam Napier in June to be a new cap in Steve Hansen’s first All Blacks squad this year.

All that came after being a key player in Taranaki’s first national provincial championship title in 2014.

Naholo’s partner Moana Fotofili agrees. A Dunedin rugby player herself, and from Fiji’s Lau Group island of Vanuabalavu, she puts it down to the support and mentoring he got from a senior Fijian player with the Highlanders.

Naholo will be 28 when the next Rugby World Cup rolls round. But he had no intention of waiting until then. Neither did the doctor of Nadroumai.

He could yet be the story of the tournament. And what a story it would be

Feedback: oseab@fijisun.com.fj

 

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