Rugby: Why All Blacks great Ma'a Nonu isn't yet ready to hang up his boots

At the spry age of 41 years, All Blacks great Ma'a Nonu is preparing for "just one more" season of rugby in his adopted home in California.

In 2020, the two-time World Cup winner signed on to play in the United States' premier competition - Major League Rugby - on a one-year deal with the San Diego Legion, which he's renewed at the end of each season since as the lure of the game continues its stranglehold on him.

Last year, the team came agonisingly close to winning their first title, falling by a single point to the New England Free Jacks – prompting an instant plea from Nonu to his wife.

"Once I left the stadium, my wife looked at me and I said to her 'One more year, please'," Nonu told Newshub. 

"I've enjoyed playing, footy. I don't think I could quite give up right now."

Nonu played 103 tests for the All Blacks from 2003 to 2015, before bringing the curtain down on a 126-game career with Super Rugby's Hurricanes to head to France to join Toulon.

He made 93 appearances for the club in the French Top 14, mixing in stints for the Blues and the Highlanders until landing Stateside.

Ma'a Nonu in action for the All Blacks in 2015.
Ma'a Nonu in action for the All Blacks in 2015. Photo credit: Getty Images

The Wellingtonian has witnessed firsthand the overall improvement in the quality of play in the US, where the sport is still very much a fringe pursuit.

An Influx of Australasian talent has helped raise that bar, with over 80 New Zealanders playing in the 12-team competition. 

The Eagles failed to qualify for last year's World Cup – the first time they've ever missed out on the sport's pinnacle event, which they'll host for the first time in 2031.

"They're getting better," Nonu noted.

"The majority of the players play in the MLR. I think half of them could go overseas and get contracts in Europe. But it was unfortunate for them to miss out on qualifying for the Rugby World Cup. I've made a lot of good friends that play for the States, hoping they will qualify again. 

"The World Cup is here in 2031, which the country is excited about."

Part of sowing the seeds of interest among the US sports public is the All Blacks' historic test against Fiji in Nonu's 'hometown' of San Diego this year. The test will be the second played in the Southern Californian city, after the All Blacks played the host nation there back in 1980.

On Thursday, NZ Rugby announced New Zealand will face last year's World Cup quarter-finalists in a one-off test on July 20 – a match designed to help build both the All Blacks brand in North America and the sport's profile generally.

Nonu is confident the spectacle will be enough of an attraction to fill SnapDragon Stadium. 

"Exciting news for the for the county," said Nonu.

"There's been a lot of people waiting for the All Blacks to come and play in the West Coast, and to be playing the Flying Fijians, which are still the most exciting teams in the world.  

"The All Blacks are renowned here in the United States. It's a new game.  

"To watch the All Blacks here, touchdown in San Diego. It's going to be exciting."

As for his own prospects in the US, the marauding midfielder says for as long as he still has the temperament for life as a pro athlete and his competitive drive is piqued by testing himself against the younger crop of talent he'll continue to lace up his boots.

But the end is nigh, he warns.

"Age is just a number. I feel really good. 

"The latter part of my career has come down to my mind, really in my head in terms of whether I could, put up with the training or playing wise.  

"If you ask any pro that's retired or playing now, you have to go to that place where, you really love the game, because you go to dark places.  

"I enjoy training and playing against much younger players that push me, as well. The younger players that come through, they really inspire me to play, to keep going.  

"But the end is near, I'm telling you that."