Ma'a Nonu and Hurricanes Will Both Benefit from Inside Centre's Return

Jeff CheshireAnalyst IIJuly 23, 2014

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 18:  Ma'a Nonu of the Hurricanes runs the ball during the round one Super Rugby match between the Hurricanes and the Highlanders at Westpac Stadium on February 18, 2011 in Wellington, New Zealand.  (Photo by Marty Melville/Getty Images)
Marty Melville/Getty Images

It has been a tough few years for Ma'a Nonu. While his All Blacks form has never really dipped, he has copped all sorts of criticism for his below-par performances at Super Rugby level.

In 2015 he will return home to the Hurricanes, where he will look to put the nightmares of the past four seasons behind him. The move should be a good one for both Nonu and his new team, provided Nonu's head stays in the right place.

There has not been a player in New Zealand rugby whose game has received more attention in recent years than Nonu. How can he be so brilliant for the All Blacks but so underwhelming at the level below?

With the Hurricanes in 2011, Blues in 2012 and Highlanders in 2013, he entered each season on a team with high hopes. All were huge disappointments, and Nonu's form did not help. He offered little on attack, and his discipline was not flash either.

Nonu's time at the Highlanders in 2013 was not a memorable one.
Nonu's time at the Highlanders in 2013 was not a memorable one.Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Of course, there was a lot more wrong at these three teams than just Nonu. None looked polished, and all appeared to lack the desire to gain a physical edge. The unfortunate thing for Nonu was that he was the common denominator in each of these three teams.

In 2014 he returned to the Blues after arguably the worst season of his career at the Highlanders. His form has been better but inconsistent. At times he has been the player many consider to be the best inside centre in the world. At others, he has been error-prone and struggled to make an impact.

A return home in 2015 will mark the fourth season in a row where he has donned a different jersey to the one before.

But this time there is every chance it could work out.

Not only could Nonu do with a fresh start, the Hurricanes need a quality inside centre.

This year the Hurricanes remained on the fringe of the playoffs for the entire season. They had a good all-round team, hard-working tight five, a bruising loose forward trio and a lethal back line. But they lacked an inside centre, and it was this that really hindered their performances.

Alapati Leiua was the best of the options used, but his departure to Europe means he will no longer be an option.

With Nonu in the mix, the Hurricanes will have a player who can bring something different to their back line.

He is a player at his best when he is receiving front-foot ball with enough depth that he can step. With this step he creates a weak shoulder on his defender, which allows him to break the tackle. It is a skill heavily taught right through the age grades in New Zealand, and there are few better at executing it than Nonu.

In this, he provides them with a genuine line-breaking option in the midfield. Sandwiched between Beauden Barrett and Conrad Smith, he will be in the best situation of recent times.

Barrett is maturing into a player capable of taking good options while also maintaining the speed and eye for a gap which helped him burst onto the scene. He will attract more attention from the defence, and he will take the ball to the line, meaning Nonu can get the ball on the run.

Nonu will benefit from playing outside Beauden Barrett.
Nonu will benefit from playing outside Beauden Barrett.Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Part of Nonu's problems in recent years has been in being stuck outside fly-halfs who just shovel the ball straight on. Often Nonu has gotten the ball at a standing start, meaning the defence is able to push up further on him. He has been limited to having to crash the ball and set up for the next phase without being able to really make an impact.

At the Hurricanes outside Barrett, this should not be such an issue.

Outside Nonu will be his longtime partner, Conrad Smith. The two have formed one of the great All Blacks midfield pairings and combine as well as any two players in the world. Smith is the hard-working, tidy, intelligent, safe tackler. Nonu is the dynamic, line-breaking, hard runner.

The key to note there is that they are different. In his two seasons with the Blues, Nonu has brought too much of what everyone else has had. Likewise, the Hurricanes have lacked punch through the midfield.

Nonu provides them with variation. He will attract more defensive attention closer in, which will open up space for their dangerous wing combination of Julian Savea and Cory Jane.

Of course, he has been hampered with some niggling injuries over the past few years too. These have clearly inhibited his play and could continue to do so at the Hurricanes. The 32-year-old will need to be managed to stay healthy, but the same can be said about many other older players in New Zealand.

His form at Super Rugby level has not been flash over the past four years. But his best years at this level came wearing a Hurricanes jersey. It seems to be where he most wants to play and also looks to be the best fit for him.

If it does not work out for him here, it is difficult to see where it will work out. At his best, he remains as good an inside centre as anyone, and if he can bring this form to the Hurricanes, they will be right up there with the top contenders.