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22nd Jul 2018

Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu’s centre partnership was the greatest rugby has ever seen

Patrick McCarry

Nonu Smith

Can you just imagine what Brian O’Driscoll and Ma’a Nonu could do in midfield together?

Reports in New Zealand, this weekend, suggest Ma’a Nonu could be in line for a third, and presumably final, stint at Auckland Blues. After three years of storming around Europe with Toulon, the 36-year-old is in line to see out his career back home.

Should Blues head coach Colin Cooper get his man, Nonu would turn 37 during the 2019 Super Rugby season, his 17th in professional rugby. You would not put it past the All Blacks legend running amok for old times’ sake before finally hanging up his boots.

In fairness, you would not put much past Nonu even if you willed it.

The Wellington native played National Provincial Championship (NPC) for his home-town in 2003 and, a year later, made his Super Rugby debut with the Hurricanes. He was used as a winger in his first couple of seasons at the Super Rugby franchise as Tana Umaga was paired with Conrad Smith.

Umaga retired from Test rugby in 2005 and headed to Toulon in 2006. Nonu and Smith got more game time in the centre for Hurricanes but he was in and out of Graham Henry’s All Blacks squads. He featured at the 2003 World Cup but missed out on the 2007 tournament in the UK. Henry selected:

  • Aaron Mauger
  • Luke McAlister
  • Conrad Smith
  • Isaia Toeava

In retrospect, leaving Nonu at home was as much a mistake as it was when the squad was picked. Henry realised the error of his ways and 2008 to 2015 [with Steve Hensen taking over as AB’s coach in 2012] was all about Nonu and Smith.

Over the next eight seasons, the pair established themselves as rugby’s greatest ever centre partnership. Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll definitely deserve a place in the debate but the Kiwis were imperious and nigh-on impossible to stop when they were at their best. On most days, they were at their best.

They made 62 appearances together in the All Blacks midfield and were key figures in Henry and then Hansen respectively keeping the World Cup in New Zealand (2011) and bringing it back home (2015).

Smith was indefatigable. A defensive leader but someone with amazing agility and attacking nous. Nonu had the ability to switch from battering ram to awe-inspiring creator in a devastating flicker. The closest southern hemisphere comparison would be Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll combining to thrilling effect during the 2009 Lions Tour to South Africa but we only got a brief glimpse of that. Nonu and Smith showed up and ran the show Test after Test after Test.

Smith and former South Africa captain Jean De Villiers both spoke in glowing terms about Nonu on The Hard Yards and their words only make you truly appreciate what a special talent he is.


“I get asked about my partnership with Nonu a lot,” the former Hurricanes captain began, “and it is something that developed over time.

“We started out probably in competition as we had Tana with us in the same Hurricanes side. He ended up on the wing, which I guess he wasn’t too happy about!

“We had a lot of time together but it wasn’t until we were starting egularly for the All Blacks that the coaches started to talk to us about building a relationship – giving a bit more thought to it and a bit more chat off the field. Once we did that, that’s when we started helping each other’s games a lot more.

“Over the years, with the Hurricanes and All Blacks, it got to the point that we knew each other so well that we could just pick up signs. You know, if we were struggling or doing well, just what the other one needed from each other. Towards the end [2015] that is where it got to, and it is something we were working on right until the end. It definitely helped us but it took a lot of work.”


The Springboks legend came up against Nonu on over 20 occasions, for club and country, and puts him right up there with opponents he has taken on.

De Villiers believes O’Driscoll is ‘the best to have ever played the game’ but feels Nonu and Smith were the toughest centres he ever duelled with.

“Ma’a Nonu is the one that sits right at the top. I played against some brilliant players and always enjoyed the challenge.

“I often believe that it is about the partnerships you play in, and against, in midfield. Gordon D’Arcy and O’Driscoll were certainly a great partnership and were probably right up there with Nonu and Conrad Smith.”

“Ma’a Nonu gave me his jersey after my 100th Test match,” he added. “I really appreciated that.”

Having played with and against the likes of Stirling Mortlock, Tana Umaga, Yannick Jauzion, Gordon D’Arcy, Sonny Bill Williams, Matt Giteau, Manu Tuilagi and Brian O’Driscoll, the endorsements for Nonu from the two rugby legends goes to show how well is regarded in the game.

Having made headlines, in his early playing days, for wearing eyeliner and dyeing his dreadlocks, all the talk about Nonu for the past decade has been about his pure class.

You could say we will never see the likes of him again but, knowing New Zealand rugby, the beauty is in the watching, waiting and knowing.


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