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Ma'a Nonu snaps eight-year losing streak in shock NZ rugby return

By Alex McLeod

Former All Blacks star Ma’a Nonu has marked his surprise return to New Zealand rugby in winning, and drought-breaking, fashion.

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It was announced earlier this week that the 103-test, two-time World Cup-winning midfielder would play for Ngati Porou East Coast in the Heartland Championship this weekend.

The announcement came after All Blacks captain Sam Cane made his long-awaited return from a pectoral injury to play for King Country against Whanganui last weekend before flying out to Washington DC for next weekend’s clash against the USA.

The second high-profile All Black, past or present, to grace the Heartland Championship in as many weeks, Nonu was named on the bench for East Coast in their round five clash against Buller in Ruatoria.

Joining Nonu in the reserves was East Coast head coach and former All Blacks wing Hosea Gear, as well as ex-Samoa, Blues and Hurricanes flanker Faifili Levave.

Together, the trio were brought in to help the tiny provincial union snap an eight-year, 54-match losing streak, but, as it turned out, East Coast didn’t really need their star-studded substitutes to break their long-standing drought.

By the time Nonu, Gear and Levave entered the fray in the 60th minute, East Coast were already leading by 31 points, paving the way for a 50-26 victory at Whakarua Park.

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Nonu and East Coast dominated headlines in New Zealand when it was confirmed the 39-year-old would play for the amateur outfit, which he did under the condition that Gear, an All Black of 14 tests, would play alongside him.

In doing so, Gear made his first appearance in New Zealand first-class rugby since he played for the Chiefs in 2015, three years prior to his retirement from professional rugby.

Nonu, meanwhile, is yet to hang up the boots for good, having played for Toulon as recently as last year after being called up for a second stint with the French club as a medical joker.

Before that, Nonu made two outings for the San Diego Legion in last year’s edition of Major League Rugby prior to the competition’s Covid-enforced cancellation.

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The year before that, Nonu played for the Blues for a third time in an unsuccessful bid to make the All Blacks squad for the 2019 World Cup, four years after his final test for New Zealand, which came in their 2015 World Cup final win over the Wallabies.

Nonu, who also played for the Hurricanes and Highlanders in his 174-cap Super Rugby career, began his East Coast debut inauspiciously by giving away a penalty for not releasing the ball in his his first carry of the match.

However, he showed some touches of class, including a 50:22 kick which helped set up first-five Te Rangi Fraser’s second try of the match.

Aside from that, Nonu didn’t have much to do, but his presence, and the drought-breaking occasion, will certainly have lifted spirits among the East Coast faithful.

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William 14 minutes ago
All Blacks vs England takeaways: Richie Who? Time for Cortez

Correct analysis of Perofeta’s bungling of the try opportunity Ben. Never ‘fixed’ Steward as he came across in defence and passed too early. Steward didn’t have to break his stride and simply moved on to pressure Telea. Never scanned the easier option of passing to the two supporting players on the inside. Beauden Barrett showed how it is done when he put Telea in for his try. Another point from the game is that the rush defence is hard to maintain as the number of phases increases. From scrums the defensive line only contains backs who all have roughly the same pace. Once forwards are involved, the defence has players with variable speeds often leading to a jagged line. It also tends to lose pace overall giving the attack more time and space. Beauden Barrett’s break to set up Telea’s try came because Baxter went in to tackle McKenzie and Steward went out to cover Telea. Barrett has a massive hole to run through, then commits Steward by passing as late as possible and Telea scores untouched. Another comment I would make is that Ben Earl is a good player and generally an excellent defender but he made three significant misses in the series, two of which led to All Black tries. Got stepped by Perofeta in Dunedin for Savea’s try, missed McKenzie in Auckland leading to what should have been a certain try being set up by Perofeta and was one of the tacklers who couldn’t stop Savea in the leadup to Telea’s first try. Perhaps he should contact Owen Farrell to pick up a few tips from ‘tackle school’.

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