In what could be his final year in New Zealand rugby, Ma'a Nonu believes he returns to the Hurricanes a better player, and person, next season.
Nonu confirmed today he will make his fifth Super Rugby switch in five years, cutting his two-year deal at the Blues short after one season in a bid to move closer to his two young sons and family in Wellington. He refused to take a pop at departing Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett, preferring to take a dignified approach.
After three years away from the capital, Nonu went as far to say Hammett did him a favour by unceremoniously dumping him from the Hurricanes in 2011 to change what he has since described as a messy culture.
"I could probably now thank him [Hammett] in terms of what happened," Nonu said. "I could honestly say I was bitter in terms of when I left. These things happen and life throws you challenges in terms of what you want to get out of it. I've come through a better person and have new motivations to play rugby.
"I've learned a lot over the last three years. There's some good people, and some not so good people. For me it's surrounding myself with good people.
"I can honestly say it was a blessing in disguise, going to new places where I was really uncomfortable and vulnerable at times. You learn these things when you leave home. The last three years has been challenging but I wouldn't have wished for anything more to happen.
"I spent nine years with the Hurricanes and never left Wellington. Going to new cities [Auckland and Dunedin] was a chance to grow as a person and grow as a player."
But there's little doubt the end of Hammett's four year term and subsequent appointment of Chris Boyd, who Nonu played under in the NPC, paved the way for his homecoming.
"It was up to the Hurricanes whether I had that opportunity to go back," he said. "I've been under Boyd during the Lions a few years back. It's a great opportunity to work with him again."
Nonu thanked the Blues and coach Sir John Kirwan for throwing him a lifeline when no other Kiwi franchise was willing to take him in at the end of last year. At the time a move to France seemed likely.
"It's been a great year playing under JK," Nonu said. "He gave me another chance to play Super Rugby. He's been very caring on and off the field and continues to be a role model for me. I'm sad to be leaving but there are new challenges ahead. I'm really happy to be heading home with the family."
Publicly at least, Kirwan was gracious about Nonu's premature exit, despite him leaving a gaping hole in the midfield.
The loss of former All Blacks lock Tom Donnelly to France also creates another void for the Blues, though despite strong interest from the Highlanders Kirwan was confident of retaining All Blacks flanker Steven Luatua.
Kirwan said Nonu delivered on and off the field and had been a role model to the squad's younger players.
"It's disappointing to lose a player like Ma'a but we understand," he said. "It's been hard on him missing his family. He goes with our blessing. We loved having him around and will miss him but family comes first."
The 32-year-old also hinted next season may be has last in New Zealand rugby. A second World Cup crown and strong season with the Hurricanes would be a fitting finale.
"Yeah that would probably be nice," he said when asked if a season in France post-World Cup held appeal. "There's one more hurdle to get over; one more goal to achieve and then we'll assess that when the time is right."
Living in Auckland and commuting to Wellington for the past seven months had, ultimately, been too difficult.
"They're always happy when they see dad home," Nonu said of his sons. "They can't leave my side when I'm there and my partner is really happy, too."
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