Ma’a Nonu enjoys first run-out for Toulon ahead of Leinster visit
European champions show ominous form as All Black plays part in eight-try win
New Zealand’s Ma’a Nonu during his debut for Toulon against Agen. Photograph: Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images
Ma’a Nonu’s debut for Toulon commandeered the headlines in a 53-23 home victory over Agen in the French Top 14 Championship. The double World Cup winner played for 70 minutes before being replaced by Anthony Meric.
The 33-year-old centre, capped 103 times for New Zealand, made a break for one of Toulon’s eight tries, while he was also involved in a moment of controversy when his ‘no arms clear-out’ on Agen secondrow William Demotte might have led to a yellow card.
“It was good,” Nonu said after. “It’s my first game and I felt a bit rusty. It’s been a long week; I’ve just found a house. But we’re footy players so that’s what we do and I hope to play better next week.”
Well, next week just happens to be the Sunday coming, when the three-time and reigning European titleholders welcome Leinster to the Stade Felix Mayol. Leo Cullen’s team didn’t have a match at the weekend after this Guinness Pro12 clash with the Glasgow Warriors was postponed because of a water-logged pitch.
Leinster, without a victory in the Champions Cup, could hardly face a more difficult assignment as they pursue a mathematical pipedream. Toulon had started the season fitfully but in a fortnight have gone from mid-table mediocrity to virtually the summit.
Whatever about the anticipated victory over Agen, the previous week’s 35-9 thumping of Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel Michelin was hugely impressive.
It is Toulon’d ability to rotate players without any drop in standard that makes them an irresistible choice for domestic league honours and tough to oppose in Europe, despite their abject performance in an opening Champions Cup loss to Wasps.
Toulon’s performance graph is on an upward curve in recent weeks. In the two aforementioned victories in which they scored 12 tries, 12 players were retained in the starting XV with just the three changes from the Clermont match to the Agen game.
James O’Connor replaced Fijian Josua Tuisova on the wing, Ma’a Nonu came in for French international Maxime Mermoz in the centre and another French Test player Romain Taofifenua was promoted ahead of Georgian, Konstantin Mikautadze.
What’s even more striking is the following players didn’t start either match: Bryan Habana (he came on to score a try against Agen), Quade Cooper, French internationals Xavier Chocci and Guilhem Guirado, while England’s Matt Sevens and Steffon Armitage could only make the bench for one or both matches.
French international scrumhalves, Sebastien Tillous Borde and Jonathan Pelissie, Springbok and Toulon captain Juan Smith and former Wallaby prop Salesi Ma’afu haven’t been included in either squad for a variety of reasons. That’s without mentioning long-term injury victims, Paul O’Connell and Freddie Michalak.
Toulon beat Leinster 29-14 in the 2014 European Cup quarterfinal at the Stade Felix Mayol and the Irish province succumbed narrowly 25-20 to the same opposition in last season’s semi-final in Marseille.
Several new arrivals have made a significant impact, notably American international Samu Manoa and Springbok number eight Duane Vermeulen, who have added to the pack’s athleticism.
Moving Matt Giteau to outhalf has provided a greater fluency, while there is every reason to suspect that Nonu will reprise the biggest midfield partnership in world rugby as he once again joins Mathieu Bastareaud; in some respects representing a metaphor for the size of Leinster’s task next Sunday.