Nonu is worth persisting with in deep south

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:00 06/07/2013
Ma'a Nonu
Getty Images
BAD BOY: Ma'a Nonu walks off the field after being red-carded.

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Super Rugby

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Ma'a Nonu is a polarising figure.

The eye-shadow is one thing, the hit on Piri Weepu, high tackle on Dan Carter and tip tackle on Tom Marshall this season have been another.

Nonu's detractors, and they are legion, see a precious individual, too selfish by half and vulnerable to world class sulks.

Even before the Highlanders Super Rugby campaign got underway there were questions about how Nonu would operate in a backline that doesn't possess a strong-willed first five.

But we've also been told about another Ma'a Nonu, one that battled on despite a knee injury during the first half of the season, because he wanted to help the franchise turn around what was quickly becoming a disaster.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between and the question many are asking is whether the Highlanders should even be bothering trying to retain the All Black midfielder.

The answer is a resounding yes, with a small asterisk attached.

Nonu, we all know, is world class. A game-breaker, a match-winner - for the All Blacks.

Judged on his Super Rugby form from recent seasons alone, he would be discarded like yesterday's newspaper.

Running battles with referee Steve Walsh aside, a yellow card and a sending off which has earned him an early end to the Super Rugby season, Nonu just hasn't played very well for the Highlanders this season.

The Highlanders themselves haven't played very well this season and this isn't all on Nonu. He's been a factor, yes, but arguably more a symptom than a cause.

Jamie Joseph should try and keep Nonu in the tent, but only if he backs himself to get more out of the dreadlocked linebreaker in 2014. That's the asterisk.

If he doesn't think he can, then Nonu should be going somewhere else.

The Blues appear unlikely, the Crusaders might fancy their chances of turning him around. The Chiefs appear to be keeping a seat warm for Sonny Bill Williams, but also have Wayne Smith as an ace up their sleeve. 

Could the Wellingtonian return to the Hurricanes and work under Mark Hammett again, three years after quitting the capital?

Joseph has said he'd like to keep Nonu, but that any decision would largely be determined by what happens with the All Blacks.

If Nonu is selected for the Rugby Championships - as you'd expect - then he'll stay in New Zealand, and will need a franchise to play for.

Any Super Rugby contract would flow from that, coloured by the strings attached to the deal, including things like sabbaticals, or guaranteed breaks.

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If nothing else it provides an interesting backdrop to tonight's game against the 'Canes in the capital, a game the Highlanders don't necessarily consider a grudge match, but one they'd love to win all the same.

You have disaffected former Hurricane Andrew Hore, who has been benched in one of three changes from last week's loss to the Crusaders, to add some flavour, while Joseph lived in the capital for a decade.

Brad Thorn will captain the Highlanders in Hore's absence, while TJ Ioane starts on the blindside and Aaron Smith returns at the expense of Fumiaki Tanaka, who will turn out for Otago again in this year's NPC.

HURRICANES: James Marshall, Alapati Leiua, Conrad Smith (captain), Reynold Lee-Lo, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Victor Vito, Karl Lowe, Faifili Levave, James Broadhurst, Jeremy Thrush, James Broadhurst, Ben May, Ash Dixon, Ben Franks. Reserves: Reggie Goodes, John Schwalger, Mark Reddish, Brad Shields, Jack Lam, Chris Smylie, Matt Proctor.

HIGHLANDERS: Ben Smith, Kade Poki, Shaun Treeby, Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear, Colin Slade, Aaron Smith, Mose Tuiali'i, Elliot Dixon, TJ Ioane, Josh Bekhuis, Brad Thorne (captain), Ma'afu Fia, Liam Coltman, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Andrew Hore, Bronson Murray, Jake Paringatai, Joe Wheeler, Fumiaki Tanaka, Hayden Parker, Buxton Popoali'i.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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