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Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith named greatest All Blacks midfielders

By Sam Smith
Conrad Smith (left) and Ma'a Nonu. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith have been named as the greatest All Blacks midfielders of all-time by a panel of rugby experts and the Kiwi public.


As part of Sky Sport’s quest to find New Zealand’s Greatest XV, a panel of leading journalists and broadcasters – Grant Nisbett, Ken Laban, Rikki Swannell and Phil Gifford – were last week asked by The Breakdown who they thought were the country’s best-ever second-five and centre.

The panel were unanimous in their verdict that Nonu, the two-time World Cup-winning veteran, was the leading candidate to fill the No 12 jersey.

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That decision that was backed by the public, who have the former 103-test star 85 percent of the vote to beat out the likes ofBill Osborne, Walter Little and Warwick Taylor to make the Greatest XV.

However, there was a split decision at centre, as although the expert panel decided on Bruce Robertson as their pick at No 13, 57 percent of the public deemed Smith as the best centre New Zealand has ever had.

The impasse led to a tie-breaker call by former All Blacks head coach Sir Graham Henry, the “convener of selectors”, who agreed with the public and confirmed Smith’s place in the team.

Nonu and Smith are widely-regarded as one of the best midfield combinations in the history of rugby, having paired with each other for the All Blacks, Hurricanes and Wellington throughout their respective careers.


At test level, the duo were the incumbent All Blacks midfielders between 2008 and 2015, and both played key roles in New Zealand’s back-to-back World Cup titles in 2011 and 2015.

Ex-All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu was a teammate of Nonu’s at the All Blacks and the Blues, and he described the 39-year-old as one of the best players ever to take to the field for New Zealand.

“He will go down as one of our most amazing All Blacks,” Mealamu told Sky Sport. “He could do the things that Jonah [Lomu] did, as well as Cully [Christian Cullen]. Great step, and developed a pass and a kick like no other.”

Former All Blacks captain Riche McCaw spoke highly of his former test teammate’s selflessness and willingness to do the upmost for the team.


“He always gave everything for the jersey. He was about the team being successful and what he could do to help,” McCaw said.

“The other thing that I really liked is he didn’t just tow the line. He’d speak up about things he didn’t agree with or he thought would contribute to help the team and, because of his actions, people respected that.”

Ex-All Blacks boss Sir Steve Hansen, who coached Nonu either as an assistant or head coach throughout the entirety of his test career, said his desire to become a better player after missing out on the 2007 World Cup squad heavily influenced his legacy.

“Not getting in the ’07 team hurt him. He went away and worked on his game, and his passing got better, his kicking got better, his fitness got better, so it’s allowed him to do the things that we needed him to do more often,” Hansen told Sky Sport.

“There was just a real drive to want to be in the All Blacks, and if you’ve got the real drive, then you get to use it every day. It’s not a spasmodic thing, it’s something that’s consistent. He became a more consistent player.”

Former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga, a teammate and mentor of Nonu’s in the early days of his All Blacks, Hurricanes and Wellington career, echoed Hansen’s sentiments.

“He was a blockbusting winger, outside back, that, if given the ball, he could make things happen,” Umaga said of Nonu in the infancy of his career.

“Yet, that’s all he was seen as, and he was very good at it. Then he had a couple of setbacks, and he showed that, ‘Yep, I don’t want to finish my career like that,’ and he developed into the world’s best midfielder, as a No 12.

“He developed the passing game, a kicking game, a great knowledge, defensively, of strategy.”

Smith, meanwhile, also drew praise from Umaga, who he was in direct competition with for a place in the Greatest XV.

“He’s the ultimate competitor is what I’ve learned from watching Conrad,” Umaga told Sky Sport of the 94-test veteran, who, like Nonu, he played alongside at the All Blacks, Hurricanes and Wellington in the early-to-mid 2000s.

“His courage is what really sets him apart. You add to that his quickness of thought; he might not have been the fastest player, but he was very smart around understanding that strategic part of the game and knowing where to be at the right time and seeing plays unfold and the best position to be in to support, make a tackle, get the ball back.

“Again, his growth in all those areas, I think that’s what sets him apart from a lot of other midfielders.”

McCaw noted that Smith’s intelligence allowed him to overcome his physical shortcomings and flourish as an international midfielder.

“When he started, he wasn’t that big for a centre at that time,” McCaw told Sky Sport.

“But, man, by the end, his impact, because of the way he understood the game, and defensively, even if he’s against bigger fellas, he knew where to be, how to work with others to ensure there was no gaps, all those sorts of things, and knew the right options to take. I think that’s what set him apart from most others.

“He had the ability to make people look good around him as well, and the way he directed and led a backline was really remarkable, and probably doesn’t get enough kudos for the impact he had.

“Just from a leadership point of view, he was brilliant in terms of leading our team with how we were going, but also how he helped people around him.”

All Blacks Greatest XV

1. Tony Woodcock (118 tests from 2002-2015)
2. Sean Fitzpatrick (92 tests from 1986-1997)
3. Ken Gray (24 tests from 1963-1969)
4. Colin Meads (55 tests from 1957-1971)
5. Brodie Retallick (85 tests from 2012-present)
6. Michael Jones (56 tests from 1986-1998)
7. Richie McCaw (148 tests from 2001-2015)
8. Zinzan Brooke (58 tests from 1987 to 1997)
9. Aaron Smith (101 tests from 2012-present)
10. Dan Carter (112 tests from 2003-2015)
11. N/A
12. Ma’a Nonu (103 tests from 2003-2015)
13. Conrad Smith (94 tests from 2004-2015)
14. N/A
15. N/A

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Jon 16 minutes ago
How Maro Itoje terrorised the All Blacks lineout

Yeah England were much smarter, they put their much vaster experience to use in both the scrum (bending/not taking hit) and lineout (Itoje early sacks) law vagaries. Really though, I know what is there, I’m more worried about Englands locks. We only got to see Itoje and Martin, right? Depth allround in the England camp was probably the difference in the series and the drop off when Itoje reached his minutes limit for the season (it was like the plug was pulled from the charger) was up their with keeping Sexton on the park in that quarter final. What happened there? You have a lot of watching hours experience with locks come blindsides Nick, especially with a typical Australian player make up, have you see a six the size of Barrett absolutely dominate the position and his opposition? I can easily see Scott, and even Martin for that matter, moving to the blindside and playing like Tadgh Beirne with the amount of top locks we have coming through to partner Patrick. Still with the English mindset, because despite running the best All Black team I’ve seen in a long time close, they do need to find improvement, and although I thought they had a lot of good performances from their 7’s, I really like the prospect of Cunningham-South in his 8 spot and Earl on the open. Can you see Martin as mobile enough to take over Lawes? I absolutely loved his aggression when Jordie ran upto him to try and grab the ball. That alone is enough reason for me to try him there.

9 Go to comments
sean 2 hours ago
The bite don't match the bark

Yeah, he has a few good points… I disagree that our 7s haven't done anything, we won Bronze in 2016, and we were virtually unplayable to the backend of the “teens” winning the series. 7s is far more competitive globally than Union, so it's fair to say we haven't dominated, but we are almost always contenders. But I do agree that our national side doesn't perform nearly as well as it should between World Cups, and I do agree that our supporters can be too passionate and the opitimity of what Rugby stands against. I have said so many times. And I also believe some context needs to be taken into account with Saturday's win for Ireland. They're a really good team! Settled coaching staff, and bar a few legends retiring, they've had a full season and plenty of time together. We have some youngsters being groomed for the future, have played only 3 games now under a new coaching team with new philosophies and game plans. I'm excited by what the future of this team holds, as much as I am disappointed by the result. But unlike this article suggests, I am never going to take away from what Ireland has achieved, is achieving, and where they're heading. As a Rugby fan, I love the tight games, like the last two weekends. As a Bok Super Fan, I agree we don't perform as well as we should. And as an aside, you come play a game at 7am on our fields, bud. -2°c and frost on the field that is as hard as concrete…. Then we’ll see just how tough you are. Well done Ireland! They played well, and gave our boys a lot to think about. That's what you want from the top two teams in the world. Rugby won. The fans of this greatbsport won. A'n bullshit like this article is why Rugby is losing its identity. I don't like soccer. This article perpetuates the soccer influences the game of Rugby is starting to see. It's why Wayne Barnes retired, feared for his family, and he isn't the only ref to say so. I have called out many Bok fans for being an embarrassment to the game, and I will continue to do so., this article is close to the same bullshit. You should be better.

45 Go to comments
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