Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith named greatest All Blacks midfielders
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.
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.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 30, 2021
“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.
“We’ve spoken to the player in question, and he has taken full responsibility for his conduct in this incident. He knows it was unacceptable and is disappointed with himself.”https://t.co/PfJsm1jxyd
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 30, 2021
“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)
12. Ma’a Nonu (103 tests from 2003-2015)
13. Conrad Smith (94 tests from 2004-2015)
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