Another milestone for mystery man Ma'a

2:42 pm on 9 October 2015

OPINION: Thirteen years into his All Black career and on the eve of his 100th Test, Ma'a Nonu remains one of the most mysterious and interesting figures in New Zealand sport.

All Black Ma'a Nonu RWC2011

All Black Ma'a Nonu RWC2011 Photo: PHOTOSPORT

On the field, he's a punishing runner, outstanding passer and surprisingly deft kicker, while off it, he's a supposed neat-freak who's reluctant to talk about himself in the media and has often been a polarising figure among fans.

After Nonu missed selection for the Rugby World Cup in 2007, few would have predicted he'd ever make it to this milestone.

However, much of Nonu's success seems to have come from his ability to take criticism (and at times there has been plenty of it) and use it to improve.

Questions over his discipline, passing, kicking and defence have all been raised at various times and then quashed by his performances.

You only have to go back to his last game in New Zealand - a 41-13 thrashing of Australia at Eden Park where Nonu was one of the best players on the park - to see his improvements in all those areas.

It is a trait that was commented on by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, whose relationship with Nonu started when he first joined the All Blacks coaching set-up under Graham Henry in 2004.

"The first conversation I ever had with him was that we don't think you're fit enough and we want you to go to Sevens," Hansen remembered while speaking to reporters in Darlington.

"He went there and changed himself. He went from being a blockbusting, hard-running centre to a really fit centre, who could then play for long periods into the game.

"He's developed the skills over the period and is a beautiful passing centre as well as a blockbusting runner."

"He's grown into a leader within the group. He doesn't say a lot but when he does speak, it's right on the money. He asks a lot of himself and cares a lot about the team - and we care a lot about him."

No one has had a better view of the development throughout Nonu's career than his long-time midfield partner Conrad Smith.

Starting at the Hurricanes and continuing at international level, where they've played more Tests together in the midfield than any other pairing in rugby, it's their differences that make them such a strong combination.

Nonu is the freakish athlete, who can bust a game open with his strength and speed, while Smith relies on his cunning and guile to beat oppositions.

Smith says Nonu is a very different person and player now from the one he first came across in Wellington.

"He was obviously younger and he'd be the first to admit he probably had a different approach and a different attitude about a lot of things," Smith said.

"But you ask any of us what we were like 10 years ago - we'd all say the same. It's great to see the way he's evolved."

Rodney So'oialo, Tana Umaga and Ma'a Nonu 2003

Rodney So'oialo, Tana Umaga and Ma'a Nonu 2003 Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Nonu strikes an imposing figure and can come across as an intimidating personality, but every All Black who's ever roomed with him on tour comments on his meticulous nature and obsession with cleanliness.

And while he's reportedly had issues getting on with everyone at Super Rugby level, his younger team-mates remember him as a great leader.

"One thing I always remember with Ma'a is he would always come up to the young fellas and have a chat," Hurricanes and All Blacks team-mate Dane Coles says.

"He'd use some of his humour on us - it took a couple of years to work out whether he was taking the piss out of me."

Whatever his quirks may be off the field, Nonu is likely to end his All Blacks career as their greatest-ever second-five-eighth.

And if he can produce a few more memorable performances over the next four weeks and earn his second World Cup winners' medal, even his most vocal critics will find it hard to argue.

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