Nonu must swap Super Jane for ABs' Tarzan

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 05:00 31/03/2013
Highlanders
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BIG NAME SIGNING: All Black Ma'a Nonu made the move south from the Blues at the end of last season.

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OPINION: The great Kiwis league coach, Graham Lowe, once described a player as "training like Tarzan and playing like Jane".

On similar lines, one of the big issues facing coach Jamie Joseph is how to get Ma'a Nonu to play for the Highlanders as well as he plays for the All Blacks.

In his later years at the Hurricanes, and then at the Blues, Nonu rarely showed the test rugby form that makes him the best No 12 in the world.

It's a rare, but not unique, situation. In the 1990s an annual media event was the "Should Frank Bunce be dropped from the All Blacks because his Super rugby form is so bad?" forum.

Like Nonu, Bunce would go into a phone box as a meek and mild Super rugby Clark Kent and emerge as a rampaging All Blacks' Superman.

With the benefit of hindsight, the final decision in 1998 to drop Bunce from the All Blacks, in the belief that at nearly 36 he couldn't pull off the playing transformation any more, combined with injury ending Sean Fitzpatrick's career, probably took away the vital steel the All Blacks lacked at the 1999 World Cup.

As an All Black, ever since he cemented his place as the starting second-five in 2008, Nonu's record on and off the field has been spotless.

A cynic could suggest the prestige and the pay packet at All Blacks level might be the drivers there, but even harsh critics at the Canes say the main element behind his brilliant All Blacks attitude is the huge, heartfelt respect he has for Graham Henry and Steve Hansen.

It hasn't always been such a happy story in Super rugby, where the Nonu tale carries baggage from his sacking at the Hurricanes when Mark Hammett took over as coach. His demise wasn't a massive surprise to people inside the Hurricanes camp.

Some, and I'm one, have never had an encounter with Nonu that wasn't entirely pleasant. He's sharp, with the subtle wit characteristic of many Samoans, and you warmed to him because a lot of the humour was self-deprecating.

But at the Canes in his later years he was infamous for mood swings. One who was there at the time says that in the space of a trip to the stadium he could go from "getting on the bus as happy as a Lotto winner, and getting off it as unhappy as if on the way he'd lost all his winnings on the sharemarket".

The behaviour started to affect the whole team. One highly promising young player told the coaches he would go to another Super side rather than endure another year of the charged atmosphere.

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On Friday night against the Reds, there were signs Jamie Joseph may be finding the Lotto version of Nonu.

A couple of legal, but brutally concussive tackles was one, the lightning, spinning, world cup class strike for his try another.

One of several contradictions in the Nonu story is that through rocky times at the Canes, he still always presented as one of the fittest in the squad.

After the shock of not making the 2007 World Cup side he flung himself into pilates, and his commitment to the training system that develops core strength has never flagged. He went from being someone who struggled with his weight to starring in body-fat tests. His aerobic capacity, strength and flexibility remain outstanding.

Realising Nonu's enormous attacking potential will now largely determine whether the Highlanders can reverse a slide into the void.

- Sunday Star Times

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