In 2005 Graham Henry called Ma’a Nonu a “little Tana”, a statement that could have been intended for a variety of reasons.
Henry remarked that they were both too similar players, which affected his test appearances playing just 18 tests in five years.
While that statement may have hurt Nonu at the time, he certainly cemented his standing on the world stage last year. Only Dan Carter played as many test matches, and he would be considered as arguably the world’s pre-eminent number 12.
I was privileged to talk to the All Black after their win against the Reds.
He has had a strong season, after a mixed start that saw him dropped to the bench early in the year.
“That was hard, I guess especially from last year’s perspective [with Nonu having starting in 14 test matches], after the season that I had”, the surprisingly lean centre stated.
“I went into the Waratahs game, I was a bit unfit and going through old habits, and he dropped me the next week against the Highlanders. That was pretty hard, hard to take. I think that as you mature on you’ve just go to bounce back stronger.”
“I’ve been trying to work on my skills in the last two months, and it’s paid off. I’m all about playing for this team, and I want to win.”
It is here that Nonu explained that clearly not taking the crown on previous occasions had hurt.
“In the past we come short, and if we keep reminding ourselves of the past, then we are going to come up short again. Hopefully, we have improved over the last five years that we can overcome losing in the semi-final.”
“We haven’t even come to the semis yet. I don’t want to get to excited, we’ve come up short a few times, probably too many times. We’ve got to be patient and take it day by day.”
And has it been difficult with so much youth in the side?
“There are a lot of young players, and we lost key players last year, like Jerry [Collins] and Chris [Masoe], so a lot of those young boys have been stepping up. We work hard for each other, and won a couple of good games, especially against the Force, and we’ve had a few matches at home.”
But being a Hurricane clearly comes with hard expectations, despite a strong culture, Nonu explained.
“Yeah there is a good culture. Obviously last week we had a tough game against the Chiefs, and people were saying things. When we were at the top of the ladder everyone was on our bandwagon, everyone was talking us up. But then we fell over last week, and then it changed, it’s kind of hard when people outside support us, and then they don’t.”
“At the end of the day, this teams the only people who are in control. It’s not about whose backing us, at the end of the day we’ve got to overcome the critics as well.”
For now, the Canes will avoid the Crusaders, who have beaten them in four of five finals appearances, but does a potential clash worry Nonu?
“You look at the Crusaders and they are a team, from one to twenty two. They are all about work rate and good defence. We’ve just got to step up our game, as it’s not about all the flash stuff. As you saw today, we scored a lot of great tries and then we seemed to let some slip.”
“But we’re ready to play anyone. If it is the Crusaders, so be it, or the Bulls or whoever. We’ve always come up short, and that’s the excuse we always say—oh we played the Crusaders and that’s why we lost. We’ve knocked them off early in the season, and we’re not scared if we have to play them again.”
A balanced view, is this inspired by his increased leadership on the field?
“Personally I don’t see myself as a leader. I don’t really talk much, and I’m not the guy that stands up in front of the team. I’m all about just doing what I need to do on the field. The boy’s will follow. It’s all about action.”
And what about the moustaches?
“It started in Africa, it wasn’t my idea, the boy’s pinpointed me out—because they think I’m a pretty boy. You had to grow a moustache until the end of the Reds game [they said]. I agreed, and if you shaved, you had to pay a thousand bucks.”
“I didn’t want to pay a thousand dollars, at the end of the day, I’m not like the other boys and I don’t care what I look like, just as long as I play well on the field.”
“It’s now only out of me, Zac [Guildford] and CJ [Cory Jane], obviously I think mine looks the best, so I think I won, so we’ll see each other now, and have a vote.”
So the best moustache get’s a thousand?
“Yeah, the other two have to pay a thousand to the winner—so I should get two thousand.”
“I’m shaving now, right now, my mum’s been pestering me the whole last month.”