Ma'a Nonu in coach John Kirwan's cotton wool
To hear it from the relentlessly positive Sir John Kirwan, Ma'a Nonu arrives back for his second stint at the Blues with a reputation as pristine as the training uniform he donned for the first time yesterday.
Of course, we all know different.
Nonu, a fine All Black, has had a checquered history in Super Rugby in recent years, where, to put it mildly, he has struggled to reproduce the consistency and commitment he's displayed in the test arena.
Since 2011 he's jumped from the Hurricanes, to the Blues, to the Highlanders and now back to the Blues, without ever really finding his groove in the franchise competition.
In fact, it got so bad that late last year the 88-test All Black midfielder faced the very real prospect of not being wanted by any of the five Kiwi teams. Canes coach Mark Hammett was certainly not erecting any bridges back to the home town.
What it took was for Kirwan to eat a big slice of humble pie and welcome back a player he felt reneged on a handshake deal to return to the franchise for the coach's debut season in 2013.
But Kirwan backs himself, and no doubt his assistant Sir Graham Henry, to get the best out of a player who remains one of the most destructive in the game. And that's clearly meant wiping the slate clean with the problematical prodigal son.
Kirwan welcomed all his All Blacks back yesterday and immediately confirmed Nonu will be wrapped in cotton wool while he deals with off-season surgery on his ankle. Like Piri Weepu (knee) and Chris Noakes (neck ), who have also been under the knife, he will be given every chance to work back to full fitness before thrown anywhere near a proper game.
"I want him to be well physically, and his wellbeing is the most important thing," said Kirwan, predicting Nonu was unlikely to be considered until after the season proper had begun. "We just need to get him well first and put him out when he's ready. He wants to play, but I'm going to hold him back."
Kirwan sounds determined to play his part. Given the calibre of his backline - Charles Piutau, Francis Saili and Frank Halai are all poised to deliver in 2014 - he understands that there's no need to rush Nonu back.
He's also clearly conscious of the need to have his enigmatic All Black in the right frame of mind.
Asked if Nonu was motivated, Kirwan said: "His communication has been outstanding and he wants to play." In terms of any clearing of the air between the two, the coach was equally emphatic: "None needed. It was all done, and we're good as gold."
Kirwan also refused to accept he'd taken on a "problem child" of the Super Rugby family.
"I don't see him as that," he said. "As far as I'm concerned every communication I've had with him since he re-signed has been fantastic. He's done everything he needs to do, but he's coming off a little ankle cleanup, and we just need to make sure he's 100 percent fit."
Veteran halfback Weepu, a close Nonu friend, offered a more realistic appraisal of the situation.
"It's good to have him back, and it's good that he and JK could work out their differences," said Weepu.
"You've got to bite the bullet at some stage, and both of them did that. But it's going to take a while, and hopefully the medical staff do everything possible to get him back in good nick first."
Kirwan yesterday confirmed no All Blacks will play in Saturday's clash against the Hurricanes (they will be assessed later this week over their readiness), though star off-season recruit Benji Marshall would split time with Baden Kerr at No 10.
"Benji has been fantastic in the pre-season, and he needs to get out there and get a feel for it," said Kirwan. "Chris Noakes won't play this weekend so we'll put him out there with Baden and let them have a run at it.
"I just don't want to put too much pressure on him. He's learning a new trade, which is not easy, but he's taking it with great positivity and working really hard."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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