Nonu keeps lid on All Blacks' special recipe
New Zealand's quest for perfection and second World Cup title spur on centre rooted in the here and now, writes Paul Ackford
Here you go, I say. You've got the pick of the world's finest rugby players. The lot. Who would you want with you in the All Blacks side right now? Ma'a Nonu smiles, thinks for a second or two, smiles again. "I couldn't say."
That's not allowed. You have to pick someone. Kurtley Beale? Quade Cooper?
"I don't know," he mumbles. Shane Williams? A shrug. Tom Croft? Nonu perks up. "What?" he says. "Who's that?"
The idea was to get inside the skin of a senior All Black, to attempt to get a sense of why they continue to be the best side on the planet. New Zealand's victory against Wales last week tipped them over the 75 per cent mark for wins since they played their first Test in 1903.
To give that some perspective, South Africa are the next most successful international rugby team with 63 per cent, followed by France on 55 per cent, England on 53 per cent and Australia with 52 per cent. Graham Henry, coach to the All Blacks since 2004, has won 86 per cent of his games in charge. Richie McCaw, who last week picked up the International Rugby Board's accolade as the world's best for the second successive season, gives a victor's speech nine out of every 10 times he puts on the black jersey. Nonu is one of the team's senior players. He has triumphed in 58 of his 66 appearance for the All Blacks so far.
Yet, like every All Black I've ever come across, Nonu is reluctant to be drawn on the mystique of the brotherhood. On a week where he is saddled up to play for the Barbarians rather than the All Blacks, a week which is more convivial than competitive, a week before he returns to Wellington for a summer of surfing and barbecues, Nonu remains guarded. I ask him why the All Blacks are so damn good. Superior skill sets? The pull of peer pressure?
"I'm not sure," he says. "I think it's because we always want to get better and we always want to win. I'm sure that's the case with other nations, but our strength is that we win when we're not perfect. We get hammered back home for that. When we win ugly we're criticised for not winning better.
"There's scrutiny all the time. People always remind us of the big losses the ABs have suffered, particularly the World Cup defeats, and you can't hide away from those because they're true. I wasn't involved in the 2007 World Cup reversal, but as a Kiwi I was still part of it."
Nonu is not unusual among elite athletes in viewing setbacks as more wholesome motivational fodder than crushing victories, but it's the need for perfection that is rarer. Most international sides are happy simply to win games. That's tough enough in itself. But New Zealand's benchmarks are set higher, elevated by the weight of their history and the achievements of their predecessors. It's a demanding legacy. "I just think we feel insecure most of the time because we want to be extra good," Nonu says. "When is there a time when there is going to be a perfect game? We always strive for the perfect game, but it's not going to happen."
For Nonu, it's now gone beyond the critics. As he has grown older in the side, he has cared less about what the columnists and pundits say about the All Blacks.
"I don't pick up a paper now. When you're young you can't hide away from it because you're fascinated by the attention. The more experienced you become, the easier it is to put it to one side."
That's why his ignorance of Croft wasn't as rude as it may have appeared, why the challenges of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales were dismissed politely by Nonu. "They're always tough," he said of the Celtic nations. "You have to provide 80 minutes. None of the games are easy." A response of the blah, blah variety. New Zealand will do all the analysis, all the preparation necessary on opponents, but their principal focus is on what they bring to the party themselves.
Certainly that was the case when England were against them a month ago. What worries you about playing England? I inquire. Another longish pause, then Nonu says: "It's always hard playing at Twickenham against the English. In that game we wanted to finish off our moves. We wanted to go through two or three phases off line-outs. We wanted to entertain the fans. I didn't think the fans got their money's worth that afternoon, but we won."
So what you're saying, basically, is that England were trouble only in as much as they provided obstacles on your journey towards perfection. Is that a fair summary?
"Yeah." Nonu says. "That's about it."
Again, the response grates more in print than it does in the context of a conversation. Nonu admires some of Martin Johnson's squad. "That new winger, [Chris] Ashton is really good and I think [Toby] Flood has come on well," but the biggest plaudits are reserved for Mike Tindall, an old adversary of Nonu's over the years. "He's a soldier who's been there a long time. I admire the fact that he's still going. I think he's still good. Test match rugby is pretty hard and he's still retaining a starting spot."
That's the other thing about the All Blacks. They respect those who have been there, done that and are still doing it, but of that triumvirate, it's the still doing it which impresses most.
What do you think of when the word 'pressure' is mentioned? I ask. "I think it's a word we've all felt, physically," Nonu answers. "But you want to either feel it or apply it. People play better when they are in the game all the time, when they're in the moment.
"There's a danger in over-analysing an adversary, thinking this is what he is likely to do, because in the game he might not do what you expect. It's all about staying in the now, being in the now."
But where does that leave ambition, aspiration? You've a World Cup in your own country in less than a year. You could be part of an All Black side that erases the failures since 1987. Don't you dream about that? "No."
Really? "No. Never. I'm always rooted in the here and now. You have to be. I don't want to get ahead of myself. People ask me all the time about the World Cup, and I just say, 'Yeah. It's next year'. You've just got to let it be. You've just got to follow the road."
And maybe that's the mistake. Maybe that's why New Zealand are still striving to secure a second World Cup. Living in the moment, churning out victory after victory is fine for the most part, but the greatest prizes require imagination to land.
And Nonu, on the evidence of this meeting at least, is reluctant to indulge his.