Last night in Christchurch Ma’a Nonu became the 35th player to play 50 tests for the All Blacks. It’s an amazing achievement for a player with such a chequered history with the black jersey.
It’s taken him seven years to make 50 test caps. That’s a long time in the modern game. To put it in perspective, Brad Thorn debuted a week after Nonu and has now played 44 tests, but he didn’t play for the All Blacks at all for four years, from the end of 2003 till 2008. Ma’a Nonu, on the other hand, has featured for the All Blacks in every year since his debut. However, between then and 2008 he only made five more starts, with another 12 caps coming off the bench.
Way back in 2003 Nonu debuted for the All Blacks, partnering with Tana Umaga in the midfield against England. The dreadlocked pair lined up against future world cup winning midfield Will Greenwood and Mike Tindall.
The All Blacks lost that night 15-13, and it started an uneasy relationship between Nonu and the black jersey that dogged him for years afterwards. Following the loss the 21 year old fell out of favour with the then All Black coaches John Mitchell and Robbie Deans, who reverted to Aaron Mauger for most of the remaining tests they coached. That attitude was continued by the new coaching regime of Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen. For the first four years of their tenure he was seen mainly as utility back and specialist bench impact player.
His reputation as a brilliant ball runner was equally tempered with a reputation for flakiness and on-field ill discipline.
Fortunately for the coaches and New Zealand rugby fans, Nonu came of age as a no. 12 just as their established 12s, Aaron Mauger and Luke McAllister departed for England after the 2007 World Cup.
He has started 29 of the 31 tests since then, and only winger Shane Williams from Wales has scored more international test tries since that tournament. The rotation that plagued the All Black midfield is now a thing of the past, with Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu firmly entrenched in the starting jerseys.