Ma’a Nonu's outstanding Super Rugby form bodes well for the All Blacks, writes MARC HINTON.
For a few years now, Ma’a Nonu has cut an enigmatic figure. He was a man seemingly without a home at Super Rugby time, wandering discontentedly through a barren landscape only to suddenly rediscover himself the moment he pulled on that black jersey which always seemed to bring out the best in him.
It had become an annual event around the water coolers of New Zealand rugby. Puzzle and procrastinate over the struggles of Nonu in Super Rugby, then marvel over his metamorphosis into one of the All Blacks’ most deadly and consistent performers. We all had our theories, but the one thing you couldn’t fault was the man’s ability to front for his country.
Then something changed in 2015. Or, if you prefer, some things. The dreadlocked colossus, at his best the premier inside centre in the game, has finally rediscovered his groove as a Super Rugby player. Once to the franchise game what Superman was to kryptonite, Nonu has unleashed the full gamut of his powers consistently and conclusively throughout a standout and record-breaking campaign by the Hurricanes.
It’s a transformation – at least through the first part of the rugby year – that has his All Blacks coaches rubbing their hands in anticipation of what might be about to unfold. Nonu’s innate physicality – he packs a fearsome amount of power into his 108kg frame – has always been a game-changing attribute, but when married with discipline, smarts and faith in his teammates, it makes him a rare beast indeed.
So what’s changed? Well, first and foremost he’s returned home to Wellington after three largely unhappy years with the Blues (in 2012 and 2014) and Highlanders (2013). A bitter divorce with the Canes at the end of 2011, when he fell out with then coach Mark Hammett, cut him adrift in a sea of Super Rugby despair. It’s only now he’s been able to weigh anchor, back where he feels most comfortable, where his friends and family surround him, and where it all began back in 2003.
But other factors have also played their part in this Nonu regeneration. It's his farewell season in New Zealand rugby as he gets set to join Toulon in France after the World Cup. That’s clearly piqued his motivation levels. Plus, at 33, he understands his legacy is a real thing that deserves his full attention.
Don’t discount, either, the impact of that broken arm suffered in last year’s Rugby Championship against the Boks in Wellington. It forced him to miss the end-of-year tour, and allowed for a proper pre-season that has him in prime condition, physically and mentally.
He’s also returned to a Hurricanes squad overflowing with ripening talent and has reunited with two coaches, Chris Boyd and John Plumtree, with whom he shares history and trust. Importantly, he is back doing his thing with old mate Conrad Smith, who is the Yin to Nonu’s midfield Yang. Together they have formed arguably the greatest All Blacks midfield of all time.
Last but not least, there’s Sonny Bill Williams. The return of the peripatetic sporting genius doesn’t just throw up a legitimate alternative (read threat) to Nonu in the All Blacks midfield, but has clearly brought out the best in the veteran No 12.
The result has been a signature campaign for a Canes outfit that has set the pace all season. Super Rugby’s third-most capped player of all time has been dialled in defensively, mixed it up beautifully on attack and has been a consistent contributor for a franchise with its eye very much on the big prize.
‘Wellington is home, and no doubt that’s where he’s most at ease,’ reflects All Blacks selector and former Test great Grant Fox. ‘He’s back paired with Conrad, the Hurricanes are travelling well, he’s contributing enormously, and there’s obviously a challenge from Sonny Bill. You put a whole lot of things together … as an All Blacks group we’re not surprised at what we’re seeing from Ma’a.
‘He’s been a quality player for us for a long, long time, and we know the past three years in Super Rugby haven’t been his best but, boy, we’re seeing Ma’a Nonu at his supreme best this year. He looks happy, relaxed and confident, and he’s putting it on the park every week.
‘There are a whole lot of factors with Ma’a this year, and I don’t think you can put it down to one thing. All those one-percenters add up and the Hurricanes are getting the benefit.’
Former All Black and now Sky TV analyst Jeff Wilson says credit must be given to the Hurricanes for finally cracking the Nonu code.
‘He’s brought his All Blacks form to Super Rugby on a consistent basis for the first time in a long time. That’s because he’s really comfortable where he is, and he’s in an environment that is supportive of him, understands him and lets him get on with the business of playing rugby.’
Wilson adds another factor to Nonu’s standout campaign.
‘The weight of expectation this season has been less than it’s been for a long time because they’ve got so many other great players, and he’s not being relied on to win games. When he went to the Blues and Highlanders everyone was expecting him to make the team win, which from his position is very difficult to do.’
The big question is, what does it mean for the All Blacks? Can they wring any more out of a man who has been pretty much a constant for them since 2008 en route to 94 Test caps, a record-equalling 55 of them in tandem with Smith?
Fox believes so as his world-best midfield gather for one final campaign.
‘What we’ve got [at No 12] is two quality players. Ma’a has proved he’s world-class, and Sonny Bill has been there before and we’ve got no doubt he can get back. When you want to win a World Cup, if you’ve got more world-class players on the field than anyone else, it goes a long way towards being successful.’
Adds Wilson: ‘The great thing is you know his condition, and his preparation is going to be right. The habits he’s formed would suggest he’s going to bring that to the All Blacks. If you’re the coach, you’ve got to have great confidence in where Ma’a Nonu is at.’
NONU OR SBW?
For the second straight World Cup, the transcendent talent that is Sonny Bill Williams faces being relegated to a bit-part player for the All Blacks.
Williams has returned to New Zealand rugby from another stint back in the 13-man code specifically to help win what would be a historic second straight global crown, and probably also to have a crack at Olympic gold in the sevens game.
But the cross-code superstar just happens to specialise in the same position as Ma’a Nonu, which means All Blacks coach Steve Hansen faces the same major dilemma as his old boss Graham Henry in 2011. Where to fit in SBW?
Hansen will be loath to break up the established midfield combination of Nonu and Conrad Smith, especially while both are still playing so well. Their complementary styles and vast experience make them, injury permitting, a laydown misère as the World Cup centre pairing.
It means Williams must either be pushed elsewhere (right wing?), or relegated to the bench. It’s one of those positive conundrums Hansen will weigh up possibly right through until October.
National selector Grant Fox says it’s a situation the ‘team-first’ All Blacks are used to dealing with.
‘I reckon they do bring out the best in each other and that competition for places is a positive thing. We’ve got that right throughout the team.’
But nowhere is it more intense than at No 12. Nonu or SBW? There is no wrong answer.
– This article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine