If there were any doubts soon to be 37-year-old Ma’a Nonu was too old to play in this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, he quashed them at Eden Park on Saturday with a brilliant performance in the Blues’ gripping 32-29 Super Rugby win against the Waratahs.
Not only did he set up two tries with slick passing, but sprinted 43m to score one himself and added a 55m wipers kick into the corner to put his team on attack.
Nonu and Dan Carter joined captain Richie McCaw and several other All Blacks in bowing out of international rugby upon being the first team to successfully defend the Webb Ellis Cup in 2015 with a 34-17 win against Australia.
It was a much more convincing World Cup finale than the nervous 8-7 one whitebaiter Stephen Donald clinched with a penalty in 2011 against France at Eden Park when injuries had previously sidelined top first-fives Carter and Aaron Cruden.
A major reason for the resounding 2015 triumph was the outstanding form of Nonu and International Player of the Year Carter who rose to the occasion after an injury-plagued build-up had hid his talent.
However loyal head coach Steve Hansen, a great believer in experience, never doubted Carter’s ability and was richly rewarded for his faith.
The odds are he also won’t close his eyes to 103-test veteran Nonu’s claims after his stunning performance against the Waratahs.
Up until then the smarts and toughness remained. But his lack of genuine pace was exposed in the first game of this Super Rugby season when speedy Crusaders centre Braydon Ennor twice swerved around him.
With Nonu sharing Blues second-five duties with Sonny Bill Willlams, there is no shortage of quality All Black midfield candidates beyond the Blues pair.
Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown combined superbly when filling the vacancy left by Nonu and Conrad Smith’s international retirement.
Both are fine all-rounders with few weaknesses and Lienert-Brown has an uncanny ability to unload passes which reap tries from tight situations.
Williams, 33. is renowned for his offloads and at a powerful 108kg is the same weight as Nonu.
Crotty, 30, and nuggety 98kg 23-year-old Jack Goodhue have formed a strong combination for the champion Crusaders with Crotty’s passes being a major factor behind the team’s latest 36-14 humbling of the Brumbies.
But for incredible try-scoring ability, no midfield back in the country can match 25-year-old, 97kg Hurricanes cannonball Ngani Laumape.
With such depth available, sorting out the best centre partnership for World Cup duty remains one of the toughest tasks facing the selectors.
The other, with Sam Cane recovering from a broken neck, is sorting out the No 7 berth.
Brave and tough, the fearless Cane has been good value. But the clever Todd and especially the athletic Ardie Savea pose a serious challenge.
With two glorious tries in the Hurricanes 33-28 Dunedin thriller against the Highlanders, Savea fully illustrated his incredible talent and made a wonderful try-saving tackle beyond the scope of most forwards.
Although only 97kg, he punches well beyond his weight with his strong leg drive and is playing the best rugby of his career.
Meanwhile with blindside flanker Liam Squire another recovering from injury, Highlander Shannon Frizell had the edge over Vaea Fifita in the Dunedin clash.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer