The maavelous brilliance of Ma'a Nonu
May 8, 2014
Brett McKay dissects key plays that will have a major bearing on the Super Rugby title © Scrum.com
Ma'a Nonu has been one of the more frustrating mysteries for fans of his various teams over the past few seasons; why can't he replicate his invariably brilliant All Blacks form at Super Rugby level?
The most common and most critical conclusion has been that he just "doesn't care" enough. That going through the motions in Super Rugby serves the means to an end; essentially, Super Rugby becomes a six-month competitive pre-season for International rugby.
Whether there is any truth in that is something only Nonu himself can answer, though I'd be highly surprised if he ever did. Regardless, the match between the Blues and Queensland Reds in Auckland last weekend served to remind us that Nonu is still more than capable of - and clearly still interested enough in - blowing Super Rugby games apart with his abundant talents. In a 15-minute-or-so minute burst either side of half-time, Nonu's brilliance turned a meandering game into a walkover. By the time Nonu had had his say, the Blues were up 27-0, and the 2014 Reds were done for.
31st minute: Jackson Willison scores wide
A simple switch of play from a scrum finds an overlap. Scrum-half Bryn Hall initially dropped to the short side as Jerome Kaino picked up the ball at the back of the scrum, but rather than unleashing Charles Piutau at Quade Cooper, he switched to first-five Simon Hickey on the open side, who had done the maths.
Hickey could see the Reds had marked up "centre a side" and he knew the Blues had an overlap they could exploit if they were good enough. Hickey drifted wide, drawing Will Genia with him, before offloading to Nonu to straighten the attack. The Reds' defence wider out was staggered, and Nonu could potentially have exploited that opportunity in front of him as well.
Ma'a Nonu set up the score with his wonderful passing game © Sky Sports / Fox Sports (Image Supplied)
But he didn't. Nonu ran straight enough to engage Reds inside centre Anthony Fainga'a, which also drew winger Chris Feauai-Sautia inwards towards the trailing Jackson Willison, before Nonu fired a perfect cut-out pass across the bow of both Willison and Feauai-Sautia to find Blues winger Lolagi Visinia in space. Visinia bolted down the flank, drawing in Reds' fullback Mike Harris, and offloaded on the inside to Willison to crash over and re-tweak his hamstring in the process.
Wonderful vision from Hickey initially, but all brought to bear by the wonderful pass from Nonu.
39th minute: Lolagi Visinia scores from a scrum set-play
The Blues won a scrum deep in the Reds' 22; with James Slipper in the Sin Bin, the Reds were force to make temporary front-row changes as well as defend one man short in the backs due to Harris packing down on the side of the scrum. By the time the Blues spread the ball wide from the scrum, Genia had come right to the open side, meaning the Reds now had the Blues well covered despite the hosts' obvious numerical advantage,
Nonu had George Moala - Willison's replacement - on his inside, and they ran directly at Cooper and Fainga'a respectively, drawing both defenders. Visinia trailed behind his two team-mates, popping out on the open side and tracking toward the small gap between Fainga'a and Reds outside centre Ben Tapuai.
Ma'a Nonu displayed a deft kicking game to set up the third try © Sky Sports / Fox Sports (Image Supplied)
With Moala and Visinia now almost heading for the same gap, Nonu needed to make a split-second decision. Moala was borderline offside so passing to him wasn't really on, leaving Visinia the only real option. And with Genia and Cooper sweating on Nonu as he ran at them, he didn't have a lot of time to pass. Instead, recognising the space in behind - Harris had packed into the scrum, remember - Nonu grubbered into the in-goal area and produced a foot-race. Fainga'a collided with Moala (rather than tackling a player without the ball) to open things up for Visinia, who simply dived on the loose ball.
Yet more wonderful vision, but this time Nonu showed the deft kicking game.
43rd minute: Bryn Hall dashes the Reds' hopes
At 20-0 down as the teams ran back onto Eden Park for the second half, the Reds really had to ensure they were the next to score if they had any designs on getting back into the game. Three minutes later, the game and, indeed, their season was done.
Shortly after the resumption, the Reds were exiting their own 22. The Blues fielded the clearing kick on halfway and immediately went back on the attack through Piutau and Frank Halai, who got them back up toward the Reds' 22 again. They immediately went to the open side, where Hickey unleashed his deep-set backline with only Reds forwards in front of them.
Ma'a Nonu showed he had the gas to exploit slow forwards © Sky Sports / Fox Sports (Image Supplied)
Nonu had already shown his passing and kicking skills, and this was his chance to show he could still gas slow forwards. He drifted to the outside of Greg Holmes and James Horwill after taking Hickey's wide pass; seeing that Saia Fainga'a was staying on Moala to his outside, Nonu dummied and accelerated through the gap. On the image above, note where Blues scrum-half Bryn Hall is. Once Nonu was through into the backfield, Hall just had to present an inside option. As Genia came across in cover, Nonu simply offloaded to Hall, and the scrum-half scooted through the traffic to score to the left of the uprights, almost untouched. With Hickey's conversion, the Blues were up 27-0 and that, as they say in the classics, was that.
"That's just too easy for a class player like Ma'a Nonu," the SKY Sport NZ commentators said during a replay. And it was. This was vintage - dare I say Test-standard - Ma'a Nonu, and by this stage in the game it was like he was toying with the Reds for fun.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September