By David Marsh
As Ma'a Nonu prepares to make his 100th Test appearance for New Zealand, we look back at his development into one of the greatest centres of the modern era
The dreadlocked midfield predator will become only the sixth New Zealander to achieve the landmark, following Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Dan Carter and Mils Muliaina.
Nonu is also only the fourth out-and-out centre to become a Test-match centurion. He joins Brian O’Driscoll, Jean de Villiers and Philippe Sella, all of whom require no introduction.
For a player who was on the brink of changing codes to rugby league in 2007, 33-year-old Nonu has made his way into the All Blacks history books through merit alone.
From infamously donning eye-liner for a spell in 2004, and tackling a streaker to the ground while playing for Wellington, Nonu has certainly made himself known to the rugby world in more ways than one.
At just 21-years-old, he made his international debut for New Zealand in June 2003, starting in the centre in a famous 15-13 defeat by England.
However, even though his first run-out for the All Blacks ended in disappointment, the taste of losing is one that has become alien to Nonu.
The All Blacks have only lost on ten occasions when Nonu has featured, giving him a phenomenal win ratio of 89%. The only Test centurion that can trump that statistic is Nonu’s long-term team-mate and captain Richie McCaw.
With an enormous arsenal of skills in his locker, Nonu is an assassin in the All Blacks midfield.
He is a rugby player of diversity. Nonu cannot be defined as a midfield powerhouse only, or just a creative mind in the middle of the park, because within five minutes he will demonstrate his ability to do both.
He can bulldoze his way through defenders like crash-test dummies with an iron-like hand-off, then minutes later leave them looking like they have two left feet as he neatly dances around them.
Welsh centre Jamie Roberts is someone who has faced off against Nonu enough times to be fully aware of his talents, and has listed him as one of the top five centres in world rugby.
Roberts recalls his encounters with Nonu as some of the most challenging of his career. “When I was growing up, Ma’a Nonu was one of those players, who at 23 or 24, was scary. In international rugby it’s all about winning collisions and getting on the front foot, which is what he gave New Zealand in his first 30 or 40 caps. It was about giving him space, putting him on inside shoulders.
“You know you have to be at the top of your game when you play Ma’a because he’s so abrasive. I remember swapping jerseys with him in 2008 when we had the haka stand-off with the All Blacks, which was a big moment for me.”
Being recognised as one of the world’s best centres has not come without tremendous hard work and dedication, something that Nonu has shown since the early days of his career.
When he first burst on to the scene, Nonu would regularly make crowds wince with his cataclysmic runs into the opposition defence and mammoth collisions in midfield, so it wasn’t long before he turned the heads of the All Blacks’ coaching team.
However, to fulfil his dream of becoming an All Black great, it was clear that Nonu had to add to his skill-set if he wanted to play alongside the likes of Tana Umaga, Aaron Mauger and Dan Carter in the All Blacks’ back-line.
He worked hard on improving his skills, and a stint playing sevens rugby was one of the best career moves that Nonu ever made.
Nonu returned to the 15-a-side game as a much more complete player, equipped with a pinpoint pass and the capability of putting boot to ball when needed.
His versatility has seen Nonu become one of the most consistent All Blacks of the last decade, and he has been a vital cog in some of New Zealand’s best achievements, including the 2011 World Cup triumph.
His All Black days will soon be at an end after he signed a two-year deal with French team Toulon, which will begin following this year’s World Cup.
What better way to bow out of international rugby for the All Black great than to lift the Webb Ellis Cup once again.