Through good and bad, Ma'a Nonu has loved his home ground from the very start.
On January 3, 2000, the then 18-year-old Rongotai College pupil hopped in his cousin's car and headed in from Miramar to check out the city's new stadium.
Wellington was unveiling the new jewel in its sporting crown and Nonu was among the thousands who first sat in the new yellow seats at WestpacTrust Stadium.
He wouldn't spend long in the stands, but by the time he made his own sprig marks on the ground the local lad already had his own unique connection to the venue.
"I'm born-and-bred Wellington so when the stadium was built I had to go along and have a look," Nonu recalled this week.
"I parked down at the railway station and when I came back I'd been towed. It wasn't my car, either. It was the official open day and I was still at school.
"I went with my cousins to have a look around the new park and we were like, 'this is bad', but then we got back and the car was gone. It got towed to the old Hutt Road so I crept up and tried to take off with the car, but I got snapped."
Nonu can't stop smiling as he recalls the day that etched the ground into his memory long before he pulled on a Wellington, Hurricanes or All Blacks jersey.
"I used to go along to all the games with the first XV.
"I remember Athletic Park too. I remember vividly 1996-97. In 1997 the Hurricanes played the Highlanders and Tana [Umaga] scored an 80-metre try in front of us.
"They did a double miss and he stepped off his right foot and ran all the way. I think it was 22-20 [to the Highlanders], but those games you probably don't remember the result, you remember the guys who were playing."
By 2002 it was Nonu scoring the tries. He still relates to youngsters watching from the stands.
"Kids go to watch guys play and when they see them do something special they remember that. They will be like, `did you see his run?' ... even if the team loses kids are like, `that's all right because I saw my idols play'. Hopefully, that's still important.
"For me I'm living a dream. I can't believe I'm even here, that I'm in the All Blacks. When you're a kid the reality is just a dream and now you're in it, it still doesn't feel [real]. I don't think it will ever feel real till you finish playing rugby."
Nonu has had mostly success at Westpac Stadium, although his test debut was the 15-13 loss to England in 2003, one of only two All Blacks losses in 12 games at the ground. The other was when Australian captain John Eales knocked over a last-gasp penalty as the Wallabies christened the test venue with a 24-23 win.
Nonu doesn't necessarily buy into the theory that certain venues should be more difficult to win at than others, but he does believe players are more comfortable when they are in their home towns.
"It's a good feeling to play in your home area, and I know it's the same for the other guys when the All Blacks play in their home town.
"It's extra special because your family is there and your brothers and sisters can come down to the ground, whereas when you play away they have to watch on TV.
"But it means more tickets you have to buy," he laughs.
Home is where the heart is for Nonu, who was raised in Strathmore and schooled at Rongotai College in Kilbirnie.
His home club, Oriental Rongotai, is in the centre of Miramar and he has spent the week commuting back and forth through the Mt Victoria tunnel from the team's inner-city hotel so he can spend time with his son Mercury, 20 months.
"I've been staying at home most nights depending on when we start in the morning. I won't leave here [the hotel] till everything is done, homework, analysis.
"There are some days you have to spend the whole day here because coming through the tunnel from Miramar you don't want to get stuck in that morning traffic."
The All Blacks will be hoping Nonu can again help find a way through the Springbok traffic, a task that has proved difficult for a player who knows his way to the tryline.
Nonu has scored 15 tries in 47 tests, and three from seven at Westpac, but only once has he crossed the line against South Africa, last weekend at Eden Park.
He is also the second leading test tryscorer since the 2007 World Cup with 12, bettered over that period only by Wales wing Shane Williams.
The All Blacks will be hoping for more of the same tonight.
They'll be hoping the team bus is still there at fulltime.
- The Dominion Post
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