In Cardiff’s impressive 25-14 win over Bath on Friday night, Willis Halaholo looked like he had never been absent.
The reality was that he had only just returned.
Two weeks ago he returned to the Welsh capital after spending some time over the summer visiting family in New Zealand.
The break was much needed after what had been a whirlwind year for Halaholo, who made his debut for Wales and played his part in Wayne Pivac’s side winning the 2021 Six Nations.
“I had no idea how much my mental health needed this break,” Halaholo said, after returning from his trip on August 30.
“It’s been three years since I last saw my family. First day back, feel fresh and ready to get rid of mum’s cooking!
“I can’t wait to reunite with the brothers and also to play in front of fans.”
Halaholo’s relative lack of preparation made his 35-minute appearance against Bath all the more commendable.
“I’m very envious of his pre-season, it was only a week!” laughed scrum-half Lloyd Williams with a cheeky smile.
It didn’t show in his performance. In the 45th minute he replaced youngster Max Llewellyn – who put on a fine outing himself – and he had an immediate impact.
The goose step was on display as he rounded his man inside his 22 and launched a counterattack, freeing Owen Lane on the other side to continue things, while putting the crowd on their feet.
Soon we saw her affair with Rhys Priestland.
“Yeah, he’s a good player, isn’t he? said the flyhalf of his new central partner.
“Obviously I saw Willis play for Wales but I didn’t see many of those boys play much because I didn’t have Premier Sports!”
The first time we really saw them in tandem, Halaholo took the ball from a free kick as first receiver and looked like he went to the truck before feeding Priestland from the back.
This little interchange created space outside and Rey Lee-Lo put Lane there. In the next phase, with the ball a bit slow, the center again showed his footwork to put in some good yardage in heavy traffic and maintain momentum.
This resulted in scrum-half Williams scoring on the other side of the field moments later.
His passing range was also on display. Just two minutes after he had a huge influence on Williams’ test build-up, he threw a fine cut pass to Lane, who dove into the corner.
In a scoreless final quarter, Halaholo made a loose pass well behind the win line and landed tackles to put his team back on the front foot. That kind of distance, especially with a bad ball, is absolutely invaluable.
He continued to miss defenders and made poor Orlando Bailey a little silly in the final rallies with a side step that seemed to defy the laws of physics, so quickly did he change direction.
“He was brilliant,” Williams said. “Every time he had the ball he beat a defender and as a center that’s what you want.
“I’m happy for Willis that he had a run-out, that he played very well and that he contributed to our victory.”
Cardiff boss Dai Young added: “I thought Willis took us to another level.
“I was happy with Max [Llewellyn] too, but I thought Willis came in, with his footwork, and made some real cuts in their defensive line and got us going.
“I’m really happy to see that. He hasn’t been back in pre-season for too long but he came back in great condition. Well done to him.
“He seemed to enjoy his rugby.”
The boss, in return, surely appreciated what he saw.
Young will have a lot to think about over the next two weeks before his side’s United Rugby Championship campaign kicks off against Connacht.
But he doesn’t need to spend too much time on his midfield.
There’s an interesting fly-half conundrum, with Priestland setting up a real marker for Jarrod Evans.
But, provided he is fit enough to go the distance, Halaholo must begin.
His performance also pleased Wales head coach Wayne Pivac, who was watching from the stands.
We could be about to see another big year from Willis Halaholo.