How Ma’a Nonu defies the age-old question
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.’’
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.