What to do about Ma'a Nonu?
Seemingly back to his best for the All Blacks during a season at the Highlanders blighted by poor form and injury, Nonu reverted to type against the Crusaders in Dunedin on Saturday night.
Sent off by referee Steve Walsh for a tip-tackle on Tom Marshall, Nonu was also cited yesterday for an allegedly dangerous tackle 10 minutes earlier on All Blacks teammate and Crusaders first-five Dan Carter.
Nonu faced a judicial hearing last night and was handed a three-week suspension for the tip-tackle. The suspension rules him out of the Highlanders' remaining two fixtures this season, against the Hurricanes and Melbourne Rebels.
"Taking into account the record of the player over a period of more than a decade playing Super Rugby, which is not unblemished, his early plea of guilt and the remorse shown, I have determined to give the player a discount of one week and to suspend the player from all rugby for a period of three weeks," SANZAR duty judicial officer Jannie Lubbe SC said.
The suspension should mean Nonu is free to play for the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship as he could serve the remaining match by claiming he was intending to play club rugby this season.
Either way, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will be casting a wary eye in Nonu's direction given his lack of midfield depth. The 79-test veteran, a consistent performer for the All Blacks against France, is far and away Hansen's best second-five.
On Saturday, Nonu marched straight from the field after seeing red but he is unlikely to walk into Jamie Joseph's bad books. Joseph, who will be under pressure from the Highlanders board after a season which has produced only two wins, will want to keep Nonu on side. He is likely to keep his job due mainly to the lack of other interested and qualified parties.
After the 40-12 beating at the hands of the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Joseph said referee Walsh was too quick to reach into his pocket, suggesting that the history between the pair - Walsh sinbinned Nonu for a late shot on Blues halfback Piri Weepu at Eden Park earlier this season - played a part.
"You can make your own conclusions," Joseph said. "He [Walsh] did not muck around with it. He checked two or three others but he didn't muck around with that one. He was pretty determined.
"It would be nice to see the stats. He always tends to order Nonu off. That was three or four times he [Nonu] has been yellow-carded by Walshy."
Highlanders general manager Roger Clark said no discussion had started over whether Nonu would be re-signed by the franchise next season.
"It is too early to talk about that and we have to get involved with the NZRU and the player agent over what Ma'a is going to do," Clark said. "From my perspective, what he did was heat-of-the-battle sort of stuff. We'll have to see what the judiciary says."
Nonu is off contract at the end of the season and has yet to announce his plans.
Clark said Nonu could not be blamed for the Highlanders' dismal season.
"You can't blame one single player and I'm not going to. It has been a team performance."
Nonu's first act when taking the field as a substitute after halftime was to see his attempted clearance charged down by Zac Guildford, which almost led to a try.
Adding to the Highlanders' disciplinary issues was serial offender Jarrad Hoeata, the loose forward yellow-carded for grabbing Andy Ellis' face in a ruck. It was Hoeata's third yellow card of the season and he too will face the judiciary.
The Highlanders have now racked up 10 yellow cards, the worst record in Super rugby. Nonu is the first player to be sent off this season. additional reporting Otago Daily Times