New Zealand Rugby
No ordinary year for eye-catching Nonu
December 1, 2008
New Zealand's Ma'a Nonu races away to score his try during the match between England and New Zealand at Twickenham in London, England on November 29, 2008.
Nonu races away to score against England at Twickenham on Saturday © Getty Images

New Zealand centre Ma'a Nonu has been singled out for praise following another success-rich year for the All Blacks.

The Hurricanes star hit the headlines for the wrong reasons earlier this month after criticising Wales' response to the haka but it is on the field that he has made his biggest impact with a series of eye-catching performances.

The 26-year-old started all but one of the All Blacks' 15 Tests this year - the one-off Bledisloe Cup match in Hong Kong saw them experiment with Daniel Carter starting outside Stephen Donald - and brought the curtain down on an eventful year with a man of the match performance and his 7th Test try in the 32-6 win against England last weekend.

Nonu has filled the void left by the post Rugby World Cup departures of Aaron Mauger and Luke McAlister and is no longer primarily seen as an impact player off the bench at Test level.

"He's stepped up better than anyone could have imagined this year. Not many people have had better year's than Ma'a's had," said All Backs backs coach Wayne Smith. "He's learned a lot about the game and he's learned that you can contribute if you're not a ball runner.

"He's got good eyes, he picks things up well. It's just been a matter of getting him to communicate those things and help Daniel (Carter) with running the game."

Smith said finessing Nonu's attacking mind set was a priority once he was anointed at the man in the middle of Carter and Conrad Smith. "With Ma'a it's been about keeping him available as an attacker. It's no good if he's on the fringe of a ruck. He's worked hard at getting back out in the backs as a defender and an attacker -- getting two touches in attack.

"If he touches the ball twice in a movement, you're in trouble as a defensive team," said Smith, who emphasised much of the credit for Nonu's maturity was down to the player. "He's designed the drills that have added to his game, he's worked hard at those things. He's been really self-directed this year and he's reaping the rewards."

Nonu's offensive threat has never been in doubt though his discipline and defence have been identified as deficiencies. But, as Smith noted, "he's got rid of the tendency the throw the ball away, the tendency to tackle high -- the stupid things in his game".

Nonu was pinged for a high shot in the opening minutes of 29-9 defeat of Wales in Cardiff -- though the indiscretion was almost an aberration. "In the last 12 months, I have got rid of the bad stuff out of my game. Before that, I would do stupid things on the field: late tackles, giving away silly penalties -- disciplinary things," Nonu said.

"About five years back, I would try to rough people up, they would rough you up back and you would get into trouble when you retaliated. I got to the stage where I felt I didn't need that sort of thing any more," he said.

"I was being targeted too much by referees and I was also to blame at times. I couldn't go forward if I didn't change. I think I've done that and I hope I am a better player now than I was four years ago."

His workload this season indicates he is, as Nonu himself pointed out before Twickenham: "It's the first time in my career I've played more than four games in a row."


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