Willis Halaholo is “desperate” to discover a new level in his Cardiff Blues performances, as he approaches his fourth campaign at Wales’ Capital Region.
The centre, who recently celebrated the birth of his fourth daughter, has been an influential figure in the Blues midfield since arriving from Hurricanes in 2016, and has been added to the squad’s leadership group ahead of the new season.
With the Guinness PRO14 season kicking off in two weeks time, Halaholo insists he has “fire” in his belly as he aims to lead a young Cardiff Blues backline to success.
The former Super Rugby winner, speaking on the latest episode of Cardiff Blues Uncovered, said: “My first couple of years here I enjoyed it, especially winning the European Challenge Cup.
“But, I will be honest, I came to a realisation last season that I had become a bit comfortable and I told the coaches that.
“When I was starting out back home, I was working and training, cleaning machinery and concreting and playing rugby, desperate to get a contract.
“Even when I was at the Hurricanes, I was still desperate to get a contract. I was on one-year contracts.
“So getting a three-year deal here at the Blues was new territory for me and I did become a bit comfortable.
“You could tell from the way I played last season that I wasn’t desperate enough to get my hands on the ball and do what I love to do and run the ball.
“I came to a realisation and I spoke with my wife and she said that as well.
“I am looking forward to this season. The fire is back. I am desperate to play like it’s my last game or like I am playing for another contract.
“I have changed a lot of things I am doing in pre-season, going back to what I know best, maybe when I was at the Hurricanes.
“You have really just got to take things seriously if you want to get there.
“I am trying to get that match fitness in me and eating well and doing those one percenters like recovery and stretching, which is something I fell off last season.
“You could see it. I was getting a few niggles and injuries and wasn’t feeling 100 per cent. That was all my fault.
“Those little things, I am doing in pre-season now and you can see it out there.
“I feel better running with the boys and keeping up with some of these young lads.
“I’m trying step into a leadership role, although it’s probably more natural for me to lead by my actions on the field in games.
“There’s a part of myself that I’m working on, which is speaking a bit more to the boys on the pitch.
“Sometimes you don’t realise how much older I am compared to some of the boys, and I’m trying to be a leader in that backline because we’ve got an exciting group of youngsters coming through.
“We’ve got young Jarrod coming through, so me, Rey and Lloyd are trying to lead the backline and drive us.
“Desperation gives me the ability to play better and show what I can do.
“Towards the end of last season, I was just another player when I know I can step it up a bit more.
“The way I was playing last season felt like I was coming towards the end of my career.
“I am stilll in my 20s and have still got a fair bit to go. I can’t be relaxing now.
“The way I played against Munster early last season is the way I want to play each week.
“It’s exciting times, especially having the PRO14 final here in Cardiff. It adds the extra motivation to do well and see what you can do here.”
During the early days at Hurricanes, Halaholo was an understudy to All Blacks greats, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, one of the game’s truly iconic midfield duo.
However, the centre soon established himself as a first choice centre as Hurricanes snatched the Super Rugby championship in 2016, with the squad containing superstars such as Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Julian Savea, Cory Jane and Dane Coles.
It was at the Hurricanes that Halaholo formed a friendship with now-Cardiff Blues team-mate, Rey Lee-Lo, and the centre reflects on his time with the franchise.
“I loved it at the Hurricanes, and having that taste of a professional environment is something that I always dreamed of,” he added.
“Especially in my first year, even though I knew I wasn’t going to get much game time because of Ma’a and Conrad. But the main thing for me was to learn from them.
“I learnt a lot on-field, but probably even more off the field, and how those boys worked on the small ‘one-percenters’.
“They were very professional with what they did in terms of recovery, eating, stretching and even making sure they spent time with their families, and that showed me it’s not just about playing and hanging out with the boys.
“Having that quality time with family after a game, or on Sundays, is something that really stood out for me.
“It was awesome to win the Super Rugby championship, especially being part of the first team to win it for the Hurricanes. It was a special milestone for me and my family.
“A lot of those boys are still on fire at the moment and someone like Ardie Savea has become one of the best players on the planet with his performances in Super Rugby and throughout the All Blacks’ campaign.
“I keep in touch with a lot of the boys who I remain very close to, with some of them playing in France and England as well.
“If you go far enough to win championships, and similar to here where we won the Challenge Cup, you keep those memories as a group forever.
“Me and Rey formed a bit of a friendship at the Hurricanes, and we were the guys behind Ma’a and Conrad, so we learnt from them together and probably holding the tackle bags and making them cups of coffee.
“At the end of his final season in New Zealand, he moved in with me before him and his family made the move to join Cardiff Blues.
“We spent a lot of time together at that time, and he also got to spend a lot of time with my daughters as well, so it was good to have that friendship before coming here.
“He spoke to me before I came over here, and I really trust his judgement about how people look after your family, and he is a real family man.
“If he said that the club looked after his family well, I trust that and that was one of the main things for me before making the move. The club has done a great job of that.
“There have been a lot of Pacific Islanders who have played here in the past, and it’s good to come to a club and find boys who you are familiar with.
“So it was good to have the likes of Rey, Nick [Williams] and Fa’ao [Filise] at the start, but by now I’ve settled in with the whole squad and got to know a good bunch of boys who I consider my family.”