Ma’a Nonu: ‘We Haven’t Lived Up to Our Expectations as a Side’
Written by Joe Harvey | Photos by John Matthew Harrison
For Ma’a Nonu, the San Diego Legion’s 31-27 win over the current Major League Rugby champions, the LA Giltinis, is less than 24 hours old.
Scoring a try in that game, the center, who turns 40 on Saturday, led his team to the Legion’ first ever win over LA, meaning that when the regular season comes to a close it will be Danny Lee’s side that hold the Cali Cup until 2023.
“That is the first time we have beaten LA,” Nonu said. “We have played them three times now, and we lost to them in the preseason too.
“The Giltinis are champs, and they have been the benchmark for MLR the last two years, since they started. It is a great achievement for us as a side.
“Watching LA last year and this year, they have been the benchmark, and they have made us better, because we knew that they were going to be pretty tough coming down to San Diego.
“It came down to the wire as well, so we are pretty chuffed that we got the win.”
Now with a 7-7 record and two games left to play and secure their place in the MLR Championship Series, Nonu and his teammates will now turn their attentions to NOLA Gold.
As the team’s second bye weeks falls on the final weekend of the 18 week season, in order to give San Diego the best possible chance of playing meaningful rugby in over three weeks’ time, the side must not only beat NOLA, but then go to Texas in the hopes of upsetting West Conference leaders, the Austin Gilgronis.
“It gives us a lot of confidence for us as a team [beating LA],” Nonu said. “I wouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, in terms of how we will end up. It is in our own hands really. We can’t rely on other teams.
“We have a bye in the last week, that doesn’t do us any favors, but we felt pretty good last night in front of our fans.
“We haven’t lived up to our expectation as a side, our expectations as individuals, so we owe it to our fans and our families to give it a massive heap the last two weeks, and it starts this week with NOLA.”
Nonu came to MLR with an immense amount of professional rugby behind him, and that feels as though it is being put mildly.
His career began some 20 years ago with Wellington in the NPC Bunnings competition and debuted for Super Rugby franchise, the Hurricanes just a year later and even made his All Blacks and Rugby World Cup bow in the same 12 months.
Scoring his first try for New Zealand against Canada in the 2003 World Cup, the center would miss out on selection for the 2007 tournament, but in 2011 and 2015 would finish as not only a winner, but one of the most important players in the All Blacks ranks.
Leaving New Zealand in 2015 for a new challenge in the south of France with Top 14 titans, Toulon, in 2020 Nonu would first turn his attentions to North America.
Pulling on a Legion jersey, he and his new teammates would win all five of their games before the global pandemic put an end to the season, Nonu returning to France for another stint with Toulon before coming back to California in 2022.
“I really enjoyed trying to grow the game in the States,” Nonu said. “Obviously the competition has gotten better since two years ago, but don’t forget you have got to perform all the time.
“Whether that is in Super Rugby or Top 14, you can’t take anything for granted, so you have got to show up every week. Other sides are getting better and better, in the East and the West. It is a tough competition.
“We kind of looked back at that  season, saying ‘what if?’. But we are here now in 2022 and the reality is that we haven’t performed.”
San Diego were beaten finalists in 2019, and made the playoffs in MLR’s inaugural 2018 season, but following a challenging 2021 are on the cusp of potentially missing out on the postseason once more.
It is not as though there isn’t pedigree throughout the team, Nonu one of several star players available to Danny Lee.
Not only that, but it is also a settled squad that turn out at the SDSU Sports Deck, with Joe Pietersen taking part in his fifth season with the team, while Ryan Matyas and Nate Augspurger have been a part of the team since day one.
With all that in mind, it can certainly be argued that this year has been below par, the captain certainly of that train of thought.
“It was more or less trying to perform at a high standard,” Nonu said. “We had been in the playoffs in 2018, 2019 and were the bridesmaids in 2020.
“We had the team and the momentum going into that tournament and into that season. Coming out of the season last year, I wasn’t here, but they had the same team for the last three years.
“We have got the ability and we have got no excuses in terms of how we have performed this season, so we have just got to go forward.”
WHAT COMES NEXT
Last Thursday, it was confirmed by World Rugby that the USA would host the 2031 and 2033 Rugby World Cup’s. An historic moment for rugby in the country, Legion published a video with Nonu and former England international, Chris Robshaw, to celebrate the moment.
Not only two highly recognizable faces in the world of rugby, but the two players also represented their countries at home World Cups. A special and unique experience, the 39-year-old is enthusiastic about what the future holds for the sport.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Nonu said. “I was lucky enough to play at a home one in New Zealand, it is a massive achievement for rugby.
“The sport here is phenomenal, it is above and beyond, the basketball, NFL and the baseball. It is just massive.
“Then you have got MLS, and now rugby is growing as well. As a kid coming from New Zealand, it is great to see that growth happening here.
“My three boys played rugby as soon as we got here in January, and they enjoyed it. It is just going to get better and better, and you will probably see more growth in the next four or five years of them getting ready for the World Cup. It is awesome.”
At the end of it all, the topic of conversation comes to the task at hand. Two games are left to ultimately decide whether or not 2022 is a disappointment for San Diego or not.
While Austin will come, at the moment it is all about NOLA, the 103-cap All Black having no illusions of the challenge that lies ahead.
“We have got a massive challenge on our hands, because both games are away,” Nonu said. “It is not in San Diego, and NOLA are not a bad team, considering what you see on the table.
“They have got a great side, with great players. You have to mention JP du Plessis, who was here two years ago and now plays for NOLA.
“At the business end of the season, a lot of the teams start playing their best footy, whether they are at the top of the table or the bottom. Our hands are full this week and next week.”
- How do you contribute to your mental health on a daily basis?
For me, I have been playing for a long time. So, I started at a time where you just got on with things and you kind of learned the hard way or you learned from the player above you, and they taught you how to behave and even how to play.
Most of my time is spent with my family and my kids. Rugby has been a part of my life for a long time, but it is not the end all be all. It is what I do, it is what I love, it is my passion, but how I feel every day; I am grateful to be alive, I am very blessed to be still playing this game.
At times when I am down, it is more or less looking on the bright side, in terms of what else I could be doing besides playing rugby. That’s raising my three boys in a country that has helped us a lot.
In saying that, it is more about my attitude towards my mental health. I wake up every day and have got to be grateful for what I have.
- How do you define being “fit” both physically and mentally?
I have had to work really hard to be physically fit. I wasn’t always fit when I first started playing and then I have worked really hard on my conditioning. It is so easy for me to get in the gym and push a lot of tin, because it wasn’t necessarily a problem for me.
It was more about being conditioned to keep doing reps over and over. Carrying the ball and during my time with the All Blacks, I had to work really hard at the running aspect. I think now, I have still got to do that, I have still got to turn up and work hard and it is more about efforts.
Then on being mentally fit, sport is unique because you can get a lot of setbacks. Some players take it differently. It is more around education of your failures.
Because one thing I want to say about depression is, when you are in sports you are going to fail, and you are going to get let down. But that is not depression to me. That’s more about having a feeling of ‘how can I get better?’.
We have to educate our young athletes in terms of when they make a side and when they get let down. You can’t automatically say ‘I am depressed because I didn’t make a team’. We have to be better, and get around them, and say it is a feeling that you haven’t made a side, but that you can get better.
That is how I see it and the frame I am looking at it in.
- How important is mental clarity for you on game days?
As a rugby player, you have done all the work during the week. If you take shortcuts during the week, then you know you haven’t done the work. When it comes to game day, that’s when you start getting nervous and second guess yourself.
If you really work in the week, in terms of what you need to do on the field and off the field, it is really simple. Rugby is basically what you put into it, and mental clarity is like what I said before about mental wellness; if you think too much, you are going to get clogged up somewhere.
Sometimes you just have to kick back and relax, and trust your ability, trust what you have done in the week, and know there is a team on the other side that wants to beat you, you want to beat them and it is how you behave in those moments when you are going to make a collision, when you need to make a pass and when you need to make a tackle.
If you think too much when you are in that space, if you think you are going to miss a tackle, you are going to miss it. 100%, because you are already thinking it. On game day, you trust yourself, what you have done during the week, and you just go out there and enjoy it.
But you have got to work hard, because the enjoyment doesn’t come without working hard, and those are the battles you want to win.
- Do you find that physical activity and exercise helps you mentally?
I love exercise, it is part of my life. I wouldn’t even think about not doing it. Sometimes I feel like I might not want to do it, but thinking it is different. It is two extremes are thinking and feeling, and that is how I see everything.
- How do you mentally overcome a tough loss or injury?
I’m trying not to upset anyone in terms of these answers, because we have got to be really careful with mental awareness. You have got to know when you play sport you are going to lose.
You have got to know that, you have got to accept that you are going to lose games, win games, and you have got to accept that you are going to get injured. For me, playing for a long time, it’s the experience and feeling in terms of injury, it is going to come. It’s how you behave and how you perform and what you put into it.
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