WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Nine seconds of supreme balance and explosive power in the 2015 World Cup final underscores exactly why Ma’a Nonu is counted among the greats of New Zealand rugby.
Nonu, who turns 38 on Thursday, was painted early on as selfish and one-dimensional, a player more concerned with style than substance for daring to wear eyeliner and dying his dreadlocks blonde.
His difficult relationship with the media saw few develop a complete understanding of him, but his team mates have described him as intensely loyal and having a sharp sense of humour.
He has also been known to turn up unannounced at his former secondary school to help with coaching and also played for his local club in Wellington at every opportunity, often to the annoyance of his All Blacks employers.
All Blacks team mate Tana Umaga saw Nonu as a potential all-time great just months after making his Super Rugby and test debut in 2003, but he failed to cement a regular starting spot during Graham Henry’s early coaching tenure.
Limited to a bit part role with the All Blacks and then snubbed for the 2007 World Cup squad, Nonu infuriated fans by agreeing to join an Australian rugby league club.
However, he never finalised the contract and was given an All Blacks lifeline when assistant coach Wayne Smith convinced Henry to make him their first-choice inside centre in 2008.
Despite the stability Nonu attained as a regular in the All Blacks midfield he continued to polarise.
In 2011, Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett reportedly clashed with Nonu over his attitude and influence over the younger squad members and told him to find another team.
While he appeared disinterested at Super Rugby level over the next three seasons, those lacklustre performances were not repeated with the All Blacks.
He was consistently one of the better players in the side having developed strong distribution skills, an adept short kicking game and ability to help organise the defence.
But it was his try in the 2015 World Cup final against Australia that demonstrated all the attacking attributes that prompted Umaga to believe he was destined for greateness.
His ability to spot space and exploit it, explosive speed off the mark, superb balance, a massive sidestep off both feet and enough top-end pace to hold off outside backs led to the All Blacks establishing a 21-3 lead shortly after halftime.
Nonu simply described the try as “lucky” having received “a good pass” from Sonny Bill Williams.
That quiet, self-effacing reply as he went into international retirement was an indication that Nonu always believed in the ‘team first’ ethos that both Henry and his successor Steve Hansen expected of players.
“The time I have had with these players has been special,” Nonu added after his 103rd and final test.
“Life goes on but we’ll always be brothers.”