Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Natural talent with an enormous skill set

England reckoned that had Manu Tuilagi been fit to play the All Blacks, the outcome at Twickenham may have been different.

The 22-year-old centre was the architect of England's 38-21 victory a year ago and is an undisputed, powerful ball-carrying and line-breaking presence.

But just as Billy Vunipola is no Kieran Read, Tuilagi is only half the player Ma'a Nonu is. Maybe not even that and it's by making these deep individual, analytical comparisons that the current superiority of the All Blacks can be best explained.

Just as he's hugely misunderstood as a person, so too is the essence of Nonu as a player not fully grasped. His core role with the All Blacks is to smash his side over the gainline - smash the other blokes behind it. The heavy focus on collision work creates an impression - that he's a battering ram, a player without a wider skill-set or much in the way of subtlety.

The All Blacks will gladly let the world think that, for it couldn't be more wrong. Ask any of the All Black backs who has the best hands in the side and most would say Nonu. His basic handling is better than Daniel Carter's and only Aaron Smith throws a better long pass.

Nonu's skill level is enormous and best illustrated when the All Blacks train. One of their most used drills is skills coach Mick Byrne kicking the ball low and hard at the players. They have to catch it - hard enough as Byrne is only a few metres away - and pass it pretty much in the same motion.

The art is being able to cushion the impact with strong wrists and then immediately soften them for the off-load. Only a few can do it as the drill is designed and even then it is only occasionally. Nonu ... every time, he is effortless and so precise.

It's the same when they switch to a longer passing drill. Most of them can throw a quality long ball - but Nonu's is drilled, on the button and whizzes into the right place seemingly every time.

A battering ram? Maybe Nonu is, but he's a battering ram with additional features that a player like Tuilagi may take an age to develop, if indeed he ever can. Nonu has reached this point on the back of many factors.

His innate talent is the foundation. He's so natural that it's obvious that even from a young age he'd have been working from a high base.

Hard work has contributed: Nonu has spent thousands of hours with a ball in his hands, repeating the same drills over a decade, it has become second nature to him.

And then there is the environment to which he belongs. In New Zealand players are genuinely encouraged to be creative and expressive: they are not punished for trying to make things happen. They play without fear in New Zealand, unlike England where there is a more conservative culture in place which tends to over- reward those who don't make mistakes.

Maybe Tuilagi would have made all the difference, but it's unlikely. The Englishman simply wouldn't have been able to throw the pass that Nonu did late in the game to put Julian Savea away.

As Steve Hansen said, Nonu's match-winning pass was no fluke: it's part and parcel of his and the All Blacks' game.

It's not yet, and maybe never will be, something that comes so naturally to Tuilagi and England.

- NZ Herald

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