31 Ma’a Nonu [2003-2015] CAPS 106
There were plenty of people, high level coaches included, who had their doubts about whether Ma’a Nonu would carve out a long international career.
He broke into the All Blacks on the back of a hugely impressive rookie Super Rugby season in 2003 where he was all power running at centre with Tana Umaga at second-five.
But when he jumped a level to test football at the World Cup, he struggled. His game was limited and he was exposed defensively, and once he made a break, he lacked awareness and skills to know what to do next.
It took him another four seasons to hone his craft to the point where he could be trusted to regularly do the right thing.
Those were four long years. He was in and out of the All Blacks squad. Used at centre, second-five, sometimes even wing by the Hurricanes, it felt like he was being bumped around because no one could quite work out what to do with him.
He missed out on being selected for the 2007 World Cup and thought long and hard about quitting rugby for the NRL at that point.
But he decided against it and made his mind up to prove his worth as a test quality second five. He worked harder than ever before.
He refined his game without losing any of its directness or muscularity and he became a must-pick for the All Blacks at No 12.
It stayed that way through to 2015. In those eight seasons, Nonu became one of the most reliable, durable and accurate All Blacks.
His contribution was enormous in getting his side over the gainline, finding holes and making tackles. He was such an important part of the All Blacks gameplan – able to get them going forward when no one else could.
He embraced yoga, wore make-up in a game once and was willing to experiment and express himself in the least stereotypical ways.
His desire to be himself, to not conform yet fit in was inspirational.
“I’d say he’s loyal to his teammates, would give anything to the jersey, and would give anything to the brothers beside him,” All Blacks captain Richie McCaw said on the night Nonu won his 100th cap at the 2015 World Cup.
“He cares deeply about the legacy of the All Blacks and does everything he can to add to it. All the boys see the hard work you put in mate, all the hard work so you can play like a champion every week.
“Ma’a Nonu is a proud Samoan-New Zealander. He’s a champion All Black, he represents his family, his teammates and his country with a huge amount of pride and respect. We salute you on a hundred tests, congratulations.”
CLUB 100 Ma’a Nonu commanded huge respect for doing things his way.