Ma'a Nonu comes full circle in Cardiff
It's been two years since Ma'a Nonu's rugby world was thrown into a tailspin in Cardiff.
He didn't know it then, but being dropped from the All Blacks test side to play Wales would be the start of an unfortunate string of high-profile events that polarised the public.
What he did know last week though as he prepared to play his 75th test match was he'd "survived" (his word) a test of character, and come out the other side more at peace with himself.
Here's something people may or may not know about Ma'a Allan Nonu. He's a perfectionist with a very long memory. A few years back he recalled a line in a story written about him five years prior. He recalls games of touch from the late 1990s and most details of each season of his storied career. And he remembers every error.
Julian Savea's known the dreadlocked midfielder most of his life, growing up in Wellington's eastern suburbs dreaming of emulating his mentor's feats from Rongotai College to the All Blacks.
"He's very hard on himself," the big wing smiled. "He's a perfectionist and if you played a game and something little, like just drop the ball once he would say, ‘nah, that's not a good enough game'." Nonu's delivery can be blunt on a rugby pitch, not everyone's cup of tea, particularly younger players expecting a more sympathetic ear.
It may have been a trait that contributed to his falling out with Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett, but Savea says his Oriental Rongotai clubmate only ever wants the best for his team. "Knowing him so long, he has been hard on me," he said. "Some guys don't take it so well, but all he wants is the best from us. It's his motivation to be the best No 12 or whatever he is doing on or off the field. I can tell you he is always up early in the morning doing his stretching or whatever it is. He is a true professional."
So it's tough when the All Black jersey you treasure is threatened by a newcomer as when Sonny Bill Williams started against Wales.
"That's when it [all the turmoil] started, it was two years ago on this tour when I got dropped for that last game when we played Wales," Nonu said. "It was a topsy-turvy year. I'd played 2008, 2009, 2010 - three straight years for the All Blacks . . . It was [hard].
"Having Sonny come in, we know what he can do, it was the first time he made the All Blacks and was playing well on that tour. He deserved that spot. But it was not really a crossroads, but a great challenge. Then 2011 came along and it wasn't a good year at the Hurricanes."
Nonu hasn't ever spoken about his falling out with Hammett, and isn't about to start. But he believes everything in the build-up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup was beneficial in the end.
"It has made me stronger mentally, kind of more at peace actually. Just that I survived. Not at peace overall because I'm still playing, but probably at peace with myself because every time I trip up there is anger at myself."
These days that inner peace is evident. Nonu is a World Cup winner, something even he can't pick holes in, and a respected senior member of the All Blacks setup.
It's a culture and job the 30-year-old holds dear, evident by the fact he has rebuffed lucrative offers to head overseas or switch codes since his test debut in 2003.
"I think the main thing is when you come into the All Blacks we have really strong values," Nonu said. "It's not so much rules and regulations, its cornerstones. It's how we portray ourselves because we represent something higher than just ourselves. There is a lot of history. The older players are the leaders, we help the young guys come in." Nonu says the buddy system is crucial. This year he's been paired with Kieran Read and together they make sure neither is late to a meeting, wears the wrong gear, or generally mucks up.
Back in 2004, Nonu recalls being roomed with halfback Byron Kelleher on his first end-of-year tour and treasures the connection nearly a decade later. He can reel off the younger players nearly a decade later, listing Casey Laulala, Joe Rokocoko and Piri Weepu among the touring party.
Now, on his seventh end-of-year sojourn, the father of two sons, Mercury and Michael, is a central cog in the All Blacks machine.
"He's always been a mature person," coach Steve Hansen said last week. "He's been in our leadership group and he's been leading well.
"People who know Ma'a know he's a genuine man. Like all of us, he cares about his family. He's made the decision to go to the Highlanders based around his family. He feels it will be better for them down there and better for his rugby. We all have to accept that. Has he learnt along the way? Yeah, as you get older you mature and he is no different."