Blues coach Sir John Kirwan was commendably restrained when told this week that Ma'a Nonu had chosen to cancel his contract with the Super Rugby franchise. He had every reason to be angry and, perhaps more so, aghast that he could lose a key player in this manner. Just three weeks ago, Nonu agreed verbally to play a second season with the Blues. But that counted for nought as he triggered an out-clause in his contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union.
This was player power Nonu-style, and Kirwan's demeanour showed he knew that he was powerless to do anything about it.
The episode has focused attention on the primacy and content of NZRU contracts, which allowed Nonu to act in such a detrimental way to the Blues. Any criticism of the primacy is largely misplaced. The system means that, while franchises can be disadvantaged, the common situation overseas where clubs 'own' players and can be loath to release them for internationals is avoided. The real issue in Nonu's case is the content of the NZRU contract that allowed to him to act as he did.
To a degree, it is understandable that the rugby union is treating him with kid gloves. Sonny Bill Williams' departure has left the All Blacks with limited midfield options. Retaining Nonu is important. But if a generous contract achieved this, it is far less easy to see why Nonu was able to dally over his Super Rugby future, even gaining an extension to a September 30 deadline. This left the Blues up in the air and, assuming that he would honour his handshake deal, they allowed several experienced midfield backs to go to other franchises. Now they look very light in that area. At the very least, franchises have every right to expect the rugby union insists that, in the interests of certainty, deadlines will be met.
Nonu, for his part, will always be valued as an outstanding All Black. But, below test level, there were already questions about his attitude and application. He was ejected from the Hurricanes and is not wanted back. Last year, he returned late to his first season at the Blues from a stint in Japan and played steadily, rather than imposing himself as an All Black should.
His latest behaviour may reflect a reality of professional sport. However, much more than talent at the top level shapes how the public views and, ultimately, remembers a player. On that basis, Nonu, not the Blues, was the major loser this week.