How Ma’a Nonu de­fies the age-old ques­tion

Taranaki Daily News - - Sport - Ma’a Nonu ex­plains the se­cret to his longevity

Ma’a Nonu should be glad he’s in the spot­light. So should New Zealand Rugby. The fact con­ver­sa­tions about Nonu con­tinue to gen­er­ate heat means he must be pro­vid­ing value for the Blues as they con­tinue to mow down op­po­nents.

Since Su­per Rugby was un­wrapped for the 2019 sea­son there has been no short­age of spec­u­la­tion as to whether Nonu could fea­ture at the World Cup in Ja­pan. Al­though not in­cluded in the 41-man squad for the All Blacks’ ‘‘foun­da­tion days’’, it’s clear he didn’t re­turn from French club Toulon sim­ply to col­lect a pay cheque.

The im­pos­ing mid­fielder has been sharp in re­cent weeks, tap­ping into his at­tack­ing power and at­ti­tude to en­gage tack­lers while us­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence to men­tor the young men around him.

It’s not bad for a bloke who pre­vi­ously hadn’t played in New Zealand since 2015, and earned his 103rd test cap for the All Blacks in the World Cup fi­nal against Aus­tralia in Lon­don later that year.

Nonu turns 37 on May 31. If se­lected for his fourth World Cup he will be the old­est player to rep­re­sent New Zealand at the global tour­na­ment and sur­pass lock Brad Thorn and hooker Keven Mealamu, who were 36 when they made their last ap­pear­ances for the All Blacks in the 2011 and 2015 fi­nals.

The pair, like Nonu now, were metic­u­lous in how they pre­pared for games and man­aged their bod­ies. You don’t play test rugby into your mid-30s with­out sac­ri­fices.

For­mer Cru­saders head strength and con­di­tion­ing coach Mark Drury, now a lec­turer at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury, said there’s no one key fac­tor as to why play­ers can keep per­form­ing into their mid-30s but the growth in sports sci­ence and un­der­stand­ing of train­ing meth­ods has helped guide pro­grammes.

The say­ing ‘use it or lose it’ is ap­pro­pri­ate in such cir­cum­stances.

‘‘They [play­ers] con­tinue to train at a high level, so they never back their body off to a lower level,’’ Drury said. ‘‘They are al­ways stay­ing in a re­ally good, ath­letic space.’’

As med­i­cal sci­ence has im­proved, surgery tech­niques and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grammes have also be­come more ad­vanced.

And noth­ing beats a de­cent break. Nonu ben­e­fited from a long lay­off in late 2014, miss­ing the lat­ter part of the Rugby Cham­pi­onship and the north­ern tour be­cause of in­jury, and was ar­guably the All Blacks’ best player at the World Cup the fol­low­ing year.

Asked in Fe­bru­ary what the se­cret of his longevity was, Nonu said: ‘‘I guess it’s what you put in your mouth. [The body] hasn’t al­ways been in good shape but I’ve learned with ex­pe­ri­ence about my body and mind.

‘‘I’m still try­ing to achieve goals, and it’s the life­style you live if you want to play pro­fes­sional sport’’.

Blues coach Leon Mac­Don­ald, who had a long first-class ca­reer

him­self, would ap­pre­ci­ate the sac­ri­fices his for­mer All Blacks team-mate has had to make to re­main com­pet­i­tive against men 16 years younger.

Fol­low­ing the 32-29 over the Waratahs at Eden Park last week­end, Mac­Don­ald la­belled Nonu’s con­tri­bu­tion ‘‘out­stand­ing’’.

‘‘When you’ve played 100 tests like he has it’s in­valu­able on the field and I have no doubt the re­sult, the way it went in the end, he played a big part in that.’’

Drury calls it ‘‘body man­age­ment’’. Peo­ple with good life­style fac­tors seem to have more longevity in the game; rather than hope things work out OK they do

their best to get a positive out­come. Sleep, nu­tri­tion, and plan­ning the week ahead con­trib­ute to suc­cess at the week­end.

Things such as mak­ing sure they pack a healthy meal, hy­drate, stretch and limit the in­take of al­co­hol are part of the rou­tine.

‘‘A lot of the re­ally good pros, who are get­ting into the twi­light of their ca­reers, man­age that stuff re­ally well. Whether they man­aged it well when they were young, or have just learned, they have those per­son­al­i­ties where they pre­pare their lunches and make sure they have their re­cov­ery done. That re­ally helps.’’

A pinch of luck never hurts, ei­ther. Some play­ers can go through a hor­ror run with in­juries and have to cut short their ca­reers.

Com­pet­i­tive ath­letes want to make good de­ci­sions, be­cause what mo­ti­vates them is the de­sire to be a win­ner.

If they have good mo­bil­ity lev­els, and are pre­pared to look af­ter them­selves, they can re­duce the risk of in­jury. Be­cause even though the hits are big­ger, and the play­ers in their mid-30s may lose their ex­plo­sive speed, they are phys­i­cally con­di­tioned to cope.

Drury also notes that over­all body strength is im­por­tant: ‘‘Be­ing re­ally, re­ally strong through the core, through the legs and right through the whole body – shoul­ders and those kinds of things,’’ he said.

‘‘It helps with be­ing mo­bile, be­cause you can be strong with your whole range of move­ment.

‘‘One of the other key things is hav­ing a high aer­o­bic ca­pac­ity. That will en­able them to re­cover quicker from the train­ing and the de­mands of the sport.’’

Then there’s the psy­cho­log­i­cal side of it. Nonu, a full­time pro­fes­sional since se­cur­ing his first con­tract with the Hur­ri­canes in 2003, has had to deal with sev­eral unset­tling in­ci­dents dur­ing his ca­reer.

The All Blacks se­lec­tors over­looked him for the 2007 World Cup, he fell out with Mark Ham­mett when the lat­ter was Hur­ri­canes head coach in 2011 and later bounced be­tween the Blues and the High­landers be­fore re­turn­ing to the Hur­ri­canes un­der Chris Boyd in 2015.

Some play­ers don’t re­tire due to in­juries, they do it be­cause they are men­tally drained. It’s one thing to keep the body in­tact; be­ing ex­cited about what they do is an­other thing en­tirely.

‘‘You can play a good game on a Satur­day, for ex­am­ple, and re­ally fo­cus on get­ting the body right for the next game,’’ Drury ex­plained. ‘‘But you also need to get your mind right, as well, be­cause you are com­ing down from a real high of the ex­cite­ment. Or get your head in that space where you have to put your body on the line again.’’

Nonu played his first test against Eng­land in Welling­ton in

2003, a match the tourists won

15-13, and is the only player from that team still play­ing in New Zealand.

Now in his 16th year as a pro­fes­sional, he brings game un­der­stand­ing and a cool head when the pres­sure in­ten­si­fies. Stay­ing fo­cused while try­ing to ig­nore the pain from a tackle made in the pre­vi­ous minute, or hav­ing copped a stray boot at the bot­tom of the ruck, isn’t easy for any player.

It’s not like be­ing in a nine-tofive job where an of­fice worker can some­times put in a medi­ocre shift, and pro­duce valid ex­cuses for why they have been dis­tracted.

‘‘You can’t do that in elite sport,’’ Drury notes. ‘‘Peo­ple are watch­ing. Ev­ery week you have got to bring your best. It is not just lac­ing the boots on, it is know­ing that you have got a per­for­mance in you that is ac­cept­able and that is not easy.

‘‘I have a lot of re­spect for the ones that get to the top of their game, and can stay in Su­per Rugby for a long pe­riod.’’

Richard Knowler

GETTY IM­AGES

Ma’a Nonu, who turns 37 next month, has made such a good im­pres­sion with the Blues this sea­son a place in the All Blacks World Cup squad is not out of the ques­tion.

From left, Richie McCaw and Ma’a Nonu were long-time All Blacks team-mates; Nonu and then-coach Mark Ham­mett had a well doc­u­mented fall­ing out at the Hur­ri­canes; Nonu and Jerome Kaino hold the Webb El­lis Cup af­ter the World Cup tri­umph in 2015.

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