COMMENT

It's the allure of the sporting fairytale that may be driving the nation's desire to see Ma'a Nonu included in the All Blacks World Cup squad.

It would be a magical story. A ridiculous story even for Nonu, who last played for the All Blacks in the 2015 World Cup final as a 33-year-old, to make it back to another tournament having effectively retired from test rugby four years ago.

No one imagined four years ago, not even Nonu, that there was the remotest possibility of him being back in the national frame.

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He was finished with all that – off to France for a last, hugely well-paid hurrah that might last two seasons, maybe three and then, in all probability, retirement.

And yet here he is, back in New Zealand and playing with much the same physicality, presence and awareness as he was four years ago.

If it was faintly preposterous back in February that he was being written up as a possible outside chance to make the All Blacks, it no longer is.

His form has been such that he's been impossible to ignore.

He still has that same ability to deduce when to head back into the traffic and scrap his way over the gainline and when there is something cooking outside him.

His long passing is as good as it ever was and if he has lost a bit of pace it would be marginal to the point of being negligible.

But the question everyone has to ask themselves is whether they are seeing things in Nonu that they want to see.

If he makes it to Japan at 37, to play in his fourth World Cup, it will be a story for the ages.

Ma'a Nonu's form has been such that he's been impossible to ignore. Photosport
Ma'a Nonu's form has been such that he's been impossible to ignore. Photosport

A remarkable tale of resilience, bravery, perseverance and exactly the sort of inspiring journey that draws people to the game.

It will light the fuse of sporting romantics across the country – across the globe even – and it may be that Nonu's case is being driven as much by wishful thinking as it is by his form.

Conversely, though, the selectors have to ask themselves whether they are not seeing things that are there simply because Nonu is challenging their established sense of what is possible.

There have been incredible World Cup comebacks before. Springboks lock Victor Matfield made it to the last one after retiring from all rugby in 2011. He was done he reckoned and worked as a lineout coach and media pundit for two years before he randomly decided he wasn't done, returned to rugby in 2014 and found himself playing against the All Blacks in the World Cup semifinal at 38 years-old.

But Nonu is a midfield back – a position where pace and agility matter. A position where few players have managed to hold an international place once they have reached 34.

That's been the upper limit until now. Jean de Villiers and Conrad Smith were 34 at the last World Cup and Frank Bunce was 35 when he played his last test.

Tana Umaga, who retired from test football at 34, is perhaps the player who came closest to reshaping the landscape when he came out of a one-year retirement to resume playing in France, before returning to play for the Chiefs when he was 38.

Read more:
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No Ma'a Nonu in All Blacks squad but World Cup dream isn't over quite yet

Ma'a Nonu makes a break against the Highlanders. Photosport
Ma'a Nonu makes a break against the Highlanders. Photosport

He was genuinely good enough to play at that level at that age, but he no longer had the acceleration or top end speed to be a serious prospect for a test recall.

And it's the fact that Nonu is challenging potentially pre-determined views that makes the situation as intriguing as it is.

He's lighting up Super Rugby but as All Blacks coach Steve Hansen so often reminds everyone, test football is entirely different.

At no stage since the last World Cup has Nonu been in the All Blacks plans.

They have worked with a wide group of midfielders that has been narrowed down to five in the last 12 months and suddenly, having been a long-forgotten All Black from a different period, Nonu is back and serious about resurrecting his test career.

This All Blacks selection group have been flexible and open, but Nonu will be a hard player for them to assess. Will they look harder for what he is not doing than what he is?

Will they be able to keep his age out of their thinking and eliminate the doubt they must have that they would be taking too big a risk to include him in their World Cup plans.

The challenge will be looking at him with an open mind and then trying to determine whether he's more deserving of a spot than one of Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams, Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown or Jack Goodhue.

And at the moment, with the emotion removed, the evidence to include him is not as compelling as it needs to be.

Crotty is playing superbly and Laumape, while he may still lack some of the finer touches to operate at the highest level, is the country's best line breaking second-five.

Williams, despite being injured, has an attacking skill-set and defensive crunch the All Blacks want in their mix when he's fully fit.

Goodhue is locked in as the best centre and Lienert-Brown is going to go to Japan for the qualities he brings off the bench and his ability to cover both positions.

So if Nonu is going to give us all the fairytale we crave, it is probably going to require one, or possibly two of those ranked ahead of him to be injured.

He would be the perfect player to have on stand-by, ready to join the squad if needs be.