Ma'a Nonu enjoying being No 1 at last

Last updated 23:00 14/11/2008
Fairfax Media
Smiles at training: All Blacks backs Ma'a Nonu, with ball, and Sitiveni Sivivatu enjoy their test preparation in Dublin.

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In hindsight "Little Tana" was probably an unfortunate moniker.

It was Graham Henry who bestowed it when he explained in 2005 why Ma'a Nonu was unlikely to partner Tana Umaga in the All Blacks midfield.

Henry argued they were too similar big, strong men who could hit the line hard and off load a foil was needed for the bulldozer's blade.

Nonu played in four tests that year but came off the bench in three and two of those were on the wing and when he started it was with Aaron Mauger.

That test was against Ireland at Lansdowne Road and Nonu was denied a try by the video referee in the 45-7 rout.

"I still tell the boys I scored it, but maybe I did knock it on," he chuckled this week.

If Nonu was hamstrung by living in Umaga's lengthy shadow early in his career with Wellington, the Hurricanes and All Blacks, he has stepped into the spotlight this year.

It's come after a chequered history with these All Blacks coaches.

He played Ireland in June of 2006, then was injured, but was a regular on the end of year tour.

Last year the chill set in two tests off the bench against France then nothing no Tri Nations, no World Cup, and league clubs were clamouring.

But things changed this year. He started in every test up to Hong Kong when he came off the bench against Australia.

He was back at 12 in Edinburgh last week and will run out again at Croke Park tomorrow in his 31st test.

Nonu, 26, who became a father for the first time while on tour, is now a man in demand.

"We need him badly for these games and we need him badly to be at his best," backs coach Wayne Smith said, adding that Nonu had improved considerably as a player.

"He's been great. He has got rid of the tendency to throw the ball away and tackle high, the stupid things in his game. He is trying to develop an all-round game at 12."

Nonu agrees.

"A few years back it was always my trait just to run really.

"I always relied on taking up the ball."

"If you look at the top centres (Stirling) Mortlock and (Brian) O'Driscoll, there's a lot of things in their game that they're good at.

"I want to try and pick that up too and add that to my game. Instead of just having two arrows in my bow, maybe more."

Yet Smith said it was just as important that Nonu remembered what it was that had made him an All Black in the first place his strength.

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He is 104kg of muscle with the legs of a prop but enough speed to have played test rugby on the wing. He is also deceptively agile with a step that fools many would-be tacklers expecting to get hit by a truck carrying a rugby ball.

Nonu was typically down-beat when quizzed on his form heading into tomorrow's test.

"I just want to keep trucking along really and keep my form going.

"I wanted to stay in New Zealand because I wanted to keep playing for this team and now I want to keep playing on this tour."

Tomorrow's match will be Nonu's fourth against Ireland and he warned they would be tougher than many people expect them to be.

He pointed to the narrow wins in 2006 and again in June this year when he scored a crucial try to take the All Blacks from 14-11 to the final score of 21-11.

"We didn't see much of them this year considering the conditions but they are much stronger now they should be pretty tough."

But perhaps not as tough as it's been breaking into the All Blacks.Fairfax Media

 

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