There have been three often magical years of All Black rugby since Ma‘a Nonu last squeezed the famous jersey over his dreadlocks.
And yet they haven‘t come close to adequately replacing the best second five-eighths New Zealand has produced. The midfield picture actually became more confused in 2018, a year out from the attempted World Cup three-peat.
There are certainly decent options in the No. 12 jersey. And of the great names who have retired in recent years blindside flanker Jerome Kaino has emerged – perhaps surprisingly – as the player who is proving hardest to replace.
But Nonu is missed, no doubt about it.
Despite the killer touches, Sonny Bill Williams has been distracted, injured, lacks the work rate and is static. Clever Ryan Crotty will never be in Nonu‘s league, lacks the physical impact and has a shocking concussion history. Anton Lienert-Brown looks great off the bench but not so much as a starter.
And then we have power-packed Ngani Laumape, the heir apparent to Nonu if there is one, who looks out of time for proving to Steve Hansen that he has the World Cup temperament and communication nous.
New Blues boss Leon MacDonald reckons Nonu is running around like a teenager, since returning from Europe for a surprise Super Rugby return which has a shock World Cup recall as the ulterior motive.
MacDonald has to be positive, of course, but the tone of his quotes is enthusiastic.
What an up-to-speed Nonu could give the All Blacks is momentum, a better platform from which their magical backs can explode.
The simple problem with the All Black forwards is that they can get out-muscled. Nonu can compensate for that.
The pack lacks overall aggression with the ball, particularly if Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock – both still fine test forwards – keep struggling to find former impact.
The pack‘s best power forwards, Patrick Tuipulotu and Ofa Tu‘ungafasi, are unlikely starters.
That‘s why I believe Nonu must come into the equation.
The mighty Nonu became a master at getting his side on the front foot, through clever angles and even nudges ahead with the boot. He‘d be the perfect guide for the rookie centre Jack Goodhue.
If Nonu does defy the World Cup odds at the age of 37, it would be the greatest and most surprising All Black comeback story of all time.
A lot of international backs have been finished at 27. Famous and infamous comebacks – Kevin Skinner, Brian Lochore, Kaino – were by forwards.
Who knows? The test game, the speed and tactics, may have moved beyond Nonu. But it will be fascinating to see how he goes and he can‘t be any slower than SBW.
The big call belongs with Blues coach MacDonald, who must choose between Nonu and SBW at second five-eighths.
SBW is an out-and-out No. 12, meaning Nonu could get shifted wider when they both play, which won‘t help his cause.
Hopefully Nonu gets first crack and comes roaring out of the gate when the Blues kick off against the champion Crusaders at Eden Park.
The veteran All Black long shot may actually be their safest best.