Four years ago, venerable Victor Matfield was the comeback king.
The Rolls-Royce of Springbok lineout forwards was 38 years old when Heyneke Meyer dug him out of three-year retirement, and a comfortable sinecure on Supersport commentary, to lead the South African lineout once more.
World Cup year is the time where coaches habitually look for players with experience of winning at the highest level, however far back in time they have to go to find them.
The equation between age and experience can easily be miscalculated. Matfield started for South Africa in the historic loss to Japan in the pool stages and was promptly replaced by Lood de Jager. It was a brusque end to an outstanding international career.
On Saturday evening at Eden Park, two more candidates for the same role in 2019 found themselves on opposing sides. The Blues’ Ma’a Nonu will be 37 at the World Cup later this year, while Waratah Adam Ashley-Cooper is just one year younger.
Both have a shot at recycling themselves and representing their countries one more time in Japan. Ashley-Cooper is Mr Versatility, having played at every spot in the backline for the Wallabies over the span of his 116 caps.
Nonu also has a century of appearances to his name for the All Blacks. He is quite simply the gold standard by which inside centre play in the professional game is measured, and his partnership with Conrad Smith was the best in the business. Only Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie came close enough, on occasion, to argue.
The road to success at number 12 was a long and winding one for Nonu. Up until the 2007 World Cup, he had played most of his rugby at outside centre, and was christened, with a slightly disparaging snort, ‘Little Tana’ by All Blacks head coach Graham Henry.
Nonu was seen as a rather less effective version of captain Tana Umaga, and they were in competition for the same spot at both international and Super Rugby levels.
It looked very much as if Nonu might never fulfil his undoubted potential when he was omitted from the 2007 World Cup squad and began to court offers from rugby league.
All that changed after the Kiwi catastrophe in Cardiff in the losing quarter-final against France.
When Henry and his coaching panel were re-elected by the skin of their teeth for the next four years, the scales had dropped from their eyes. Ted had previously preferred a pure second playmaker outside Dan Carter – an Aaron Mauger, a Luke McAlister, even an Isaia Toeava.
None of those players had anything remotely like Nonu’s 108-kilo physical presence in midfield. Ted saw Nonu had a chance to become the complete 12, and whatever Henry could envision, assistant Wayne Smith could surely enact on the training paddock.
Between them, they viewed Ma’a Nonu as a ‘triple threat’ inside centre – a 12 who could run, pass and kick to the highest standard. As Smith said, “he was trying to develop an all-round game there”, and that meant improving both his passing and his kicking.
Smith was taken aback by the quality of the raw material he had to work with:
“He told me he’d never kicked in a game, but the quality of his kicking with his right foot was outstanding.”
Ma’a Nonu could feel the difference immediately:
“A few years back it was always my trait just to run really. I always relied on taking up the ball.
“If you look at the top centres (Stirling) Mortlock and (Brian) O’Driscoll, there’s a lot of things in their game that they’re good at.
“I want to try and pick that up too and add that to my game. Instead of just having two arrows in my bow, maybe more.”
By the time of the 2011 World Cup, Ma’a Nonu’s quiver was full, and Wayne Smith’s work was finished.
The game between the Blues and the Waratahs showed how much of that quality Nonu has retained into his mid-thirties. His presence overshadowed a potential Wallaby midfield quartet of Bernard Foley, Karmichael Hunt and Ashley-Cooper, with Kurtley Beale coming off the bench in the second period.
Nonu’s presence held the Blues backline together with the strength of his options on the ball:
This is Nonu in the centre of a characteristic Blues’ formation on attack. He is set outside first receiver Otere Black, and behind a couple of forwards in the first line. On the majority of plays, he has all three of the options indicated – to pass outside, to kick diagonally for the corner flag, or to take the ball up into contact himself.
The game did not showcase Nonu’s diagonal kicking game, except for one long, booming punt which forced Israel Folau back deep into his own 22:
Let’s add the following montage as a reminder of what Nonu can do with his right foot, particularly on those killing diagonals to the corner:
The basis of Nonu’s game is still the threat he presents on the carry. Defenders have to respect his power and footwork and can never write him off:
First Nonu drives through Nick Phipps’ attempted tackle, then he takes an angle past Karmichael Hunt’s outside shoulder and onto Adam Ashley-Cooper. On both occasions, he has set up an easy exit situation for the Blues’ kickers on the next phase.
One of the kick-backs from a strong running game is the bonus it offers on block plays. If defenders respect you on the run, they will be more likely to believe you as a decoy, and Nonu has always been superb at running the defence away from the intended target area:
The Blues want to run their blindside wing in the space between the two Waratah centres, and it is Nonu’s ability to convince Hunt he is the real threat which forces the Waratahs number 12 to turn inwards and open the door.
It was Nonu’s ability to attract the eyes of all of the defenders in his zone which was key to the scoring of the Blues’ first two tries:
Take a look at the passing technique in the delivery stride in both examples, and you will see perfect consistency between the two.
The ball is held in two hands, the shoulders are square and the right foot step in the delivery stride is directly towards the probable tackler. There is no choice but for all defensive eyes to be drawn on to Nonu as he makes the money pass. Both Alex Newsome (outside) in the first instance, and Adam Ashley-Cooper (inside) in the second find themselves a step short of plugging the critical gap and preventing the break.
Nonu has also brought back some tricks from Toulon against the high line-speed defences common in the northern hemisphere, of the type that the All Blacks are likely to face in Japan:
In the first example, Nonu keeps depth of at least 12 metres from the rushing Waratah line, then uses a double-pump to draw Folau past the ball and put Rieko Ioane into the hole. The winger should have hung on to the pass.
In the second half, he again used depth of positioning to pull the rusher on to him and create a gap in the defence for replacement Michael Collins:
Nonu has ‘stretched the triangle’ to breaking point and the line spacings have become too wide for the defence to cover.
The cherry on top of the passing cake is that Nonu distributes as well off his left hand as he does off his right. Here he delivers a perfect long left-to-right pass to set up another easy exit kick for Collins:
When the Waratahs closed the game up to a three-point margin at the death, all eyes turned to Nonu as the leader of the Blues’ playing group. He was the one doing the talking and demanding the standard, just as the quality of his attacking play had done most of the talking and demanded most of the standards for his team throughout the game.
Even at 36 years of age, Ma’a Nonu possesses an attacking skill-set unrivalled in the domestic game in New Zealand. Sonny Bill Williams may be a superior offloader and Ryan Crotty may organise a defensive line better, but absolutely nobody else possesses Nonu’s triple threat with ball in hand.
There will be more searching questions asked about his defensive range and ability to last 80 minutes at Test intensity in the games to come, but Nonu has put down his marker, without question. His knowledge of northern hemisphere defence structures would also be of concrete value to the All Blacks.
Nonu’s performance for the Blues turned a harsh spotlight on the Wallabies’ own difficulties in finding the right midfield combination and filling a problematic spot at inside centre.
Kurtley Beale lacks Nonu’s physical presence, Karmichael Hunt doesn’t have his kicking game and Samu Kerevi is still in the early stages of the process of becoming ‘Little Ma’a’.
Moreover, the evidence suggests Adam Ashley-Cooper still has a way to go if (like Nonu), he is to prove himself the comeback king of 2019. He would do well to heed the unfortunate story of Victor Matfield four years ago.
The equation between experience as an invaluable asset and simply getting too old to play is not an easy one to address honestly. For a king to ascend to the throne he has already abdicated, matters are never quite as simple the second time around.