I stayed in London the weekend of the Heineken Cup final a few weeks ago. One of my taxi drivers was a cheeky, chirpy little fella. "Love my job I do, wouldn't do nuffink else, it's the freedom yeh see. I can go for a few beers in an hour if I like, take the rest of the week off if I want. I'm my own boss yeh know. Nobody tells me what to do." I said, "take the next right at the junction here."
Rugby players are their own bosses. What are they now but self-employed contractors engaged in a contract for services? This is so because the market decides it. If every player is or was as good as the next then everyone would be on the same wages. But because the marketplace does not have homogeneity, different players get paid different wages.
Notionally you are paid what you are worth -- it stands to reason that better players get paid more, but there is a caveat, particularly when you have a group dynamic. How does that better player fit in to a team of 23 and a squad of say 45? No guarantees that the better player, that better paid player, is an asymmetric fit for the group -- very often he is anything but. The imperative when you go to the market is to make sure that the player you buy, whose talent and ability are universally undoubted, fits seamlessly into the equation. If you buy trouble, you are more than wasting good money.
Ma'a Nonu, the 54 times capped All Black centre, was sensationally sacked by the underperforming franchise the Wellington Hurricanes last week. He is now officially 'on the market' and since mid 2010 his name has been consistently connected with Munster. If ever there was a player who could energise Munster, this is the one. Munster's mix in midfield just hasn't fired for this and last season. A combination of Nonu inside and Earls outside would certainly quicken the pulse.
The only question you have to ask though is why is he on the market and is he worth the risk?
Nonu is a phenomenal physical specimen. Weighing in at 110 kilos he is an imposing figure in midfield. When he was a child he always got picked to play Bethlehem in the school nativity play. Maturity found him later in his career. In his earlier years Nonu wore eye-liner and shadow on his face while on the pitch. Not sure if Rimmel will be taking a hoarding at Thomond Park, but his make-up days seem to be over. His visage is no less distinctive, he has nearly a full body tattoo -- as Robert Mitchum said in Cape Fear "I don't know whether to look at him or read him." The multi-coloured dreadlocks are equally unique.
Whatever about his body idiosyncrasies there is no disguising what a simply devastating offensive player he is. Eighteen tries in 54 Test matches for the All Blacks seems low for an outside back on a team that wins 90 per cent of their matches, but you cannot disguise his value -- Nonu makes tries for his fellow three-quarters. I do not know many players who can cross the advantage line with such devastating ferocity -- all contact is dictated on his terms.
One of the things about great players is the awareness of the need for self-improvement. Nonu had a handling and a footballing deficit -- recognition of that is the first step. He worked hard on improving his attacking paradigm and added a dimension to that through application, something that many people thought impossible.
Nonu now has soft hands, can float a pass accurately, can offload in traffic with sympathetic passes and is able to kick with skill and efficiency. It is an insult to call him a bosher.
It seems he has good human characteristics too. He is not pinioned by the encumbrances of fame, neither is he surly or suspicious about the obligations of being an All Black in New Zealand, nor is he a loner within the provincial or national squads. Also, he was born in Wellington and has stayed and played there all his life -- even though the 'Canes trophy cabinet does not require planning permission for an extension. Loyalty is a comparative rarity when guys like Max Guazzini were throwing money about like confetti.
So where did it all go wrong?
Another season of mid-table mediocrity for the Hurricanes was underscored by dreadful indiscipline and petulant form by Nonu throughout the season, a trend that had been simmering up from the previous season. Nonu got sent off (on two yellows) in the first match of the Super 15 season against the Otago Highlanders. Nonu, after several warnings from coach Mark Hammett, persisted with his captious form and continued picking up yellows, the last of which was against the Lions in Jo'burg where he flung a ball at the touch judge, hitting him, and walked off.
Throughout the season Hammett and Nonu would have had stand-up rows as Nonu's penchant for disagreeing with the coach's ideas and strategies brought sessions to a standstill. Hammett got the backing of the board and Nonu and the Hurricanes Captain Andrew Hore (a 50-cap All Black) both got sacked. Hore, it is believed, for his mid-week drinking sprees.
Bad attitude from big players acts as a contagion. Sometimes the only way to deal with this malignancy is to cut it out. Munster have a decision to make. They are doubtless not unaware of why Nonu was let go. There is no question that they are a big enough club for Nonu to go to. They also have the financial muscle. The question is: will he fit into the Munster model?
You have to look at it from all sides. Talented wankers have been bought by clubs with more money than sense. Idiots like Danny Cipriani bought by the Melbourne Rebels, Andy Powell bought by London Wasps and the Himbo Gavin Henson bought by Toulon. All of them disastrous for the team and the club. All three clubs knew what they were taking on. It was 100/1 that they could turn them into productive members of society. The acid ratios in these cases were too high. The balance between the players' abilities counterbalanced by their propensity to disrupt the team and cause trouble outside.
Byron Kelleher, the brilliant All Black scrumhalf, had trouble following him all over the place off the field. Yet Toulouse harnessed him and he played brilliantly for them and ingratiated himself within the squad if not with Guy Noves whose daughter he went out with for a very tricky year or so.
In Kelleher's case, he was worth all the trouble he brought; Toulouse, though, have offloaded this year. It would only be a matter of time before the pendulum swung.
One Irish province took on a player who has serious problems with alcohol. This was known before the contract was signed. A disastrous purchase.
From Munster's perspective, they have had quite a few bad buys -- no more or less than any other Irish province -- I think what Nonu can bring might just be too much to resist. They could be putting the final clauses together as we rise this morning. If they buy -- I hope they can manage him.
ps: If you haven't been rugby-ed out you could do worse than watch the New Zealand under 20s play in the Junior World Cup. They beat a decent Welsh side 92-0 during the week. They would beat most teams in the Pro 12 or Aviva Championships. Interplanetary skill levels. Take 80 minutes out and marvel.
Sunday Indo Sport