The Nonu conundrum
When the All Blacks travelled to England for the 2015 World Cup, there was never any question marks over who would start in the New Zealand midfield come the knockout stages of the tournament.
Squad members Sonny Bill Williams and Malakai Fekitoa both had their strengths, but it was the Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith combination that had served the team so well for the previous eight years. Unsurprisingly, Nonu and Smith dominated the 12 and 13 jerseys for the tournament, marching out in all three finals games.
In 2019, the picture is a whole lot murkier.
On last year’s tour to the Northern Hemisphere, the All Blacks selected an extended squad of 51 players with some travelling only for what was effectively a development game against Japan.
All up, six midfielders made appearances on the tour for the All Blacks. Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown and Williams (now on track for his third World Cup) all travelled as regular squad members while Ngani Laumape and Matt Proctor started the match in Tokyo.
Of those six players, Proctor is unlikely to feature for the All Blacks in 2019 or, in all probability, ever again. He is unquestionably the sixth cab off the ranks and has now signed to represent Northampton for 2020, rendering him unavailable for selection after he leaves New Zealand.
Although we’ll likely only see four midfielders selected for the World Cup later this year, the remaining five players who featured on the end of year tour in 2018 will all consider themselves in with a good shot of making the tournament come September.
Williams and Crotty seem to have been the preferred starting combination in recent times but injury has hampered these two from suiting up in too many matches together. Goodhue, instead, has been run out at centre to compensate for the missing player and has impressed in his seven caps so far – and his game is ever improving at the Crusaders. Lienert-Brown has been used primarily as a substitute but in some ways seems to have the bench spot locked down, being preferred as the All Blacks’ primary 23 whenever available. Laumape, though incredibly popular with fans (especially in the Hurricanes region), has had few opportunities to impress in test rugby and may struggle to usurp any of the other four unless injuries come in to play.
Now that we’re eight weeks into 2019’s season of Super Rugby, it could be time to add one more name to the list of potential players.
Ma’a Nonu, fresh off his time in the south of France, returned to New Zealand this year to link up with old teammates Leon Macdonald and Tana Umaga – now coaches of the country’s most underperforming rugby team, the Blues.
The reaction to the 37-year-old’s announced return was lukewarm. Although remembered fondly for his years of service to NZ rugby, it’s always painful to see a once incredible player continue to lace up their boots when they’re well past their prime – something which many feared was about to happen with Nonu’s return.
Come Nonu’s first match of the season, up against the Crusaders in Christchurch (arguably the hardest possible fixture in the competition), fans around the country tuned in to see whether the dreadlocked bulldozer was going to rekindle his youth or make a fool of himself.
Before Nonu left the country back in 2015, he was well known as the cannonball in the All Blacks midfield. If the team were ever lacking for go forward or simply needing to bide their time before they could set up a more creative attack, Nonu was the man to make a dent in the opposition’s defence.
2019 Nonu appears to be a different sort of player altogether. In that first matchup with the Crusaders, it wasn’t his hard hits on attack and defence that caught the eye – it was his accurate skip passes.
That’s not to say that he was never a great passer of the ball, either. In his later years with the All Blacks, Nonu’s skillset developed to the point where he was putting in some incredibly well-judged kicks and sending bullet passes careening over the playing field – but it was always his blockbusting, rib-crunching runs that really got fans cheering.
Against the Crusaders, there were certainly times when the ex-All Black looked a little bit out of his depth – dropping off the odd tackle and being caught napping on his outside shoulder once or twice, but his skillset looked to have developed further from when he left New Zealand almost four years prior. Many of his mistakes could also be attributed to being slightly less fit than what is now expected of a Super Rugby player in New Zealand – a sign of how the game has changed even in only the few years that Nonu’s been absent.
Nonu didn’t set the world alight in his first match back, but he also didn’t give much ammunition to the detractors who wrote him off before he even set foot on the playing field. In the four games Nonu has played since that first match of the season, we’ve seen more of the strengths that Nonu has honed since he departed for the other side of the equator – the vision, the distribution, even the kicking on occasion. His game may not be destructive as it once was, but it looks to be more multi-faceted than it was previously.
For New Zealand fans, that can only be a good thing. At almost six foot and close to 110kg, Nonu is not a small man by any stretch of the imagination – but he’s also not one of the biggest backs running around like when he made his first appearance in Super Rugby way back in 2003. Just looking at who the Blues can field in the backline, Levi Aumua, Caleb Clarke, Tanielu Tele’a and Sonny Bill Williams all come close to or exceed Nonu in terms of their physical size which means that every string Nonu can add to his bow is invaluable.
Perhaps even more important than any of the other qualities that Nonu possesses is his experience. Two world cup medals, finals experience with both Wellington and the Hurricanes and over 100 caps at both test and Super Rugby level paint a picture of a man who has experienced all the highs and lows that rugby has to offer; experience that would be invaluable in a high stakes match such as a World Cup final.
If New Zealand supporters have any reservations about Nonu, they should also remember that the All Black centurion always saved his best performances for the black jersey. The Hurricanes (as well as the Blues and the Highlanders for a season each) never got the quality games from Nonu that they were probably hoping for, so the fact that he’s maintaining a high standard for the Blues now could be a great sign if the All Blacks selectors do come knocking.
With an embarrassment of riches on Steve Hansen and his fellow coaches’ hands in the All Blacks midfield, it may be a little too optimistic to hope for a national recall for Ma’a Nonu just yet. Given the diverse range of skills he possesses and his unquestionable experience, however, there may yet be time for a fairy-tale rise from the ashes.
By Tom Vinicombe, RugbyPass