Ageing like a fine New Zealand wine, could Ma'a Nonu be about to start in a third World Cup?
Defying the natural order of New Zealander internationals put out to pasture in the Northern Hemisphere following a glittering All Black and Super Rugby careers, Ma’a Nonu is back to his best for the Blues this season. Extraordinarily, the soon-to-be 37-year-old must surely be in with a chance of starting for Steve Hansen’s team in the Japan World Cup later this year.
Once notorious for flattering to deceive at club level throughout his 12-year, 103 cap All Blacks career, the former Toulon battering ram is tearing up trees for the Blues, playing a significant role in the recent success of the so often struggling Kiwi side. A smart kicker, distributor, crash ball runner and old head in the Eden Park changing room, there is scarce an argument to be made against Nonu standing as the current form Kiwi, and arguably world, inside centre.
Given his progressing years, a four-year Test hiatus since the 2015 World Cup final and the faith Blues teammate Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert Brown have paid New Zealand rugby by resisting tempting Northern Hemisphere salaries, there would be ample justification for a continued international hiatus for Nonu.
Indeed, there would be no shortage of advocates for the likes of Sonny Bill and Crotty, who have been within the All Blacks setup since the last World Cup campaign and had to bear the brunt of the hole left by the departures of Nonu, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Richie McCaw and Keven Mealamu.
While there is value to the suggestion of slaps to the faces of Sonny Bill and Crotty in the event that Nonu should earn a matchday spot ahead of either one or both of the duo, it would be blather to believe Steve Hansen has become one of the most highly decorated coached n the history of the sport by allowing his heart to rule his head.
With Crotty’s notorious propensity for injury and Sonny Bill’s lack of form over the last two years, there is more than a strong case to be made for Nonu’s return to the homeland and exquisite form to be rewarded with a return to the black twelve jersey once all but sewn onto his torso.
Furthermore, recent injury to Chiefs fly-half/fullback Damian McKenzie, ruling him out of the World Cup, leaves Hansen little to no choice but to rely on the inexperienced Richie Mo’unga as backup to an out-of-form Beauden Barrett. While calls for the inclusion of uncapped Crusader’s fullback Will Jordan, since both McKenzie’s injury and the retirement of Israel Dagg, could further lower the average cap count in Hansen’s backline. If there is one aspect of World Cup-winning teams identifiable at first glance, it is experience; and a lot of it.
If Hansen is anything he’s a shrewd operator, and a return to not just the All Black fold, but starting XV for Nonu is surely now subject to only Test fitness and exposure to training time and Test minutes throughout the shortened format Rugby Championship later this year.