The whiteboard session that proved Ma'a Nonu as an All Blacks great
Few, however, know the impact he made off the park, but New Zealand broadcaster Sky Sport has revealed a story that highlights just how influential Nonu was as an All Black.
Speaking on The Breakdown as part of Sky Sport‘s ongoing quest, with the help of the Kiwi public, to uncover the Greatest All Blacks XV of all-time, commentator Ken Laban shared an anecdote he heard from ex-All Blacks coach Wayne Smith to help state his case for Nonu as New Zealand’s best-ever No 12.
Laban said that during Smith’s time on the All Blacks coaching staff, he would hold whiteboard meetings prior to All Blacks training sessions to help detail what the team would work on during their practice run.
However, according to Laban, there was a period where Smith felt disrespected by Nonu’s lack of concentration during some of the whiteboard sessions.
Concerned by Nonu’s level of engagement, Smith called on the 103-test veteran to come to the front of the room during one whiteboard meeting and asked him what he would do differently to what Smith outlined.
Laban said that Smith was left in awe by Nonu’s response and the impact it had on his All Blacks teammates.
“Wayne Smith shared a lovely Ma’a Nonu story with me a few years ago,” Laban told long-serving Sky Sports commentator Grant Nisbett.
“When the All Blacks would prepare for their training sessions, he would do a whiteboard session to outline what they were going to do, then the boys would have an understanding of exactly what it was that they would then go out and do.
“Smithy was telling me there was this period in the All Blacks where he didn’t feel that Ma’a was engaging in any way with the process.
“‘He would sit there, looking out the window, not really concentrating, and every time I’d ask him a question, he would just [say], ‘Yeah, whatever bro, sweet’.’
“Smithy was telling me, ‘I put a lot of time into these sessions, and I was starting to get a little bit conscious that my work, my integrity was being disrespected by Ma’a.
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“‘One of the meetings, I said, ‘Ma’a, why don’t you come to the front and tell us what you think we should do’, after I’d already explained.
“‘So, Ma’a comes from the back of the room to the whiteboard, gets the duster, rubs off this, this this, this and this, add this, this, this, and he’d improved the skills we were going to do that day by 100 per cent’.
“‘He said that he’d always felt that way, but out of respect for me, he never said anything. The other thing I noticed was that when Ma’a spoke, everybody in the room listened.’
“He [Smith] said, ‘Everything that you’d read about him statistically, the least-tackled second five of all-time, the hardest player to mark, the most dominant player in that position’, so, yeah, 100 per cent, Ma’a Nonu, No 12.”
Laban was one of four experts on The Breakdown‘s panel called on to debate which players deserved to be included in New Zealand’s Greatest XV, with the others being Nisbett, veteran NZME journalist Phil Gifford and Sky Sports commentator Rikki Swannell.
Gifford and Swannell agreed with Laban in his verdict that Nonu is the best-ever No 12 to have played for the All Blacks as they opted for the two-time World Cup-winner over the likes of Bill Osborne, Walter Little and Warwick Taylor.
“I am pretty set that Ma’a Nonu is my second five. I think he showed enormous resilience. I think as he grew as a person, he grew as a player,” Swannell said.
She added that Nonu’s value has been emphasised since his retirement from international rugby as the All Blacks have battled to find a long-term replacement in recent years.
“Since Ma’a Nonu has no longer been an All Black, we haven’t found that natural successor. There’s been some very good players, and there are some going around at the moment – [Jack] Goodhue, [Anton] Lienert-Brown, [Ryan Crotty], Sonny Bill Williams – but nobody has cemented that spot quite like Ma’a Nonu did.”
Gifford echoed the sentiments of Laban and Swannell as he said that, while he particularly enjoyed Little as an All Black between 1990 and 1998, he couldn’t overlook the exploits and longevity of Nonu.
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“I agree entirely. The panel’s as one on this, I think. The one thing I’d say about Ma’a Nonu is I can’t think of a single All Black whose career path, to me, has got better and better and better and better,” Gifford told The Breakdown.
“By the time he hit the 2015 Rugby World Cup, to me, he patently was an all-time great with whatever team he was playing for. The best All Blacks second five I’ve ever seen.
“Somebody may come along that’s as good as him, but it’s hard for me to picture someone being better than him.”
The panel deliberated over who should partner Nonu in the midfield of New Zealand’s Greatest XV, with the candidates being Bruce Robertson, Joe Stanley, Tana Umaga and Conrad Smith.
Despite Smith being Nonu’s long-term midfield partner throughout their careers with the All Blacks, Hurricanes and Wellington, none of the panel selected the former 94-test star as their pick at centre.
Instead, Laban and Gifford both backed Robertson, the 34-test All Black who played for New Zealand between 1972 and 1981.
Gifford said that while there were some serious contenders to fill the No 13 jersey, Robertson punched above his weight during his time in the All Blacks.
“In 1972, the Auckland Star sent me out to cover a game at Counties. I don’t remember who they were playing against, and there was this kid with the skinniest legs I’ve ever seen on a rugby player playing in the 13 jersey for Counties called Bruce Robertson,” Gifford told The Breakdown.
“I just sat on the press bench almost with my jaw gaping. That’s how brilliant this kid was.
“He was a kid from Hastings, he was at teachers’ college at the time, Bruce Robertson, and Barry Bracewell, the Counties selector, had seen him playing fullback for the Ardmore team, plucked him out of the side, put him into the Counties team in 1971.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 24, 2021
“The next year, Bruce Robertson was an All Black, still only about 20 or 21, and went onto greatness.
“I’ve never seen a centre – and Joe Stanley would be close to it, Buncey [Frank Bunce] had other skills but possibly not this one quite as much, Conrad Smith had these skills – but Bruce Robertson putting a winger into space was just a thing of absolute beauty.
“He was also a damn good defender for a guy that was never a big, husky guy, and he also was so stunningly quick that if a winger wasn’t in a position and Bruce Robertson decided to run, there was a damn good chance he’d score the try himself.”
Laban added: “My selection is Bruce Robertson as well. I remember him in the 70s. A player way ahead of his time.
“Tall, unbelievably skilful, his timing, his angled runs, his ability to cut in and then out, he’d run those lovely short balls off Bill Osborne, get in behind, draw and pass on the fullback, put the wing away, almost like clockwork.
“He was a beautiful player to watch. He was an elegant runner of the ball, a tremendous defender, as Phil has alluded to. Bruce Robertson would have played 120 tests in the modern era.”
Swannell, meanwhile, opted for Umaga, who she credited as an icon for her generation of New Zealanders for becoming the first Pasifika captain of the All Blacks.
Fans can vote for who they believe should be selected in the second row for the Greatest All Blacks XV via Facebook using the links below.
Bill Osborne (16 tests from 1975-1982)
Walter Little (50 tests from 1990-1998)
Warwick Taylor (24 tests from 1983-1988)
Ma’a Nonu (103 tests from 2003-2015)
Bruce Robertson (34 tests from 1972-1981)
Joe Stanley (49 tests from 1986-1991)
Tana Umaga (74 tests from 1997-2005)
Conrad Smith (94 tests from 2004-2015)
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. Brodie Retallick (84 tests from 2012-present)
5. Colin Meads (55 tests from 1957-1971)
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)
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