By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Ma'a Nonu made the first step towards what would be a remarkable return to World Cup rugby on Thursday when he was named to start for the Auckland Blues in their Super Rugby opener against the champion Canterbury Crusaders.
The 36-year-old will partner TJ Faiane in the midfield at Eden Park on Saturday with Nonu's fellow World Cup winning-centre Sonny Bill Williams on the bench.
It will be his first Super Rugby appearance since the 2015 final, when the Otago Highlanders upset his Wellington Hurricanes to apparently bring an end to his career in New Zealand as he headed off to France.
A desire to bring his young family back to New Zealand prompted him to walk away from the offer of a contract extension at Toulon, though, and when he signed with the Blues, talk of a fourth World Cup appearance naturally followed.
It will be no easy task with Williams, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown and Ngani Laumape all ahead of him in the queue but the desire is still there to try.
"Well I think (making the All Blacks) is there, you know, in everyone's minds," he told reporters this week.
"I had a great time in France, I guess the opportunity to come and play for the Blues, I took it with both hands really.
"Hopefully I can still play at this level, that's a challenge I'm looking forward to.
"For me it's trying to make the Blues team first, so one step at a time."
With that first step complete, Nonu must now prove that he can still play in Super Rugby, a level of the game where in his later years in New Zealand he was accused by some of coasting before upping his game with the national side.
Nonu will turn 37 in May and is the oldest player in Super Rugby this year but he believes his experiences in France have helped him learn how to take better care of his body.
"I'm older. I hope I still have the wisdom upstairs and the physicality as well to play in Super Rugby because it's really intense," the twice World Cup winner said.
"The Top 14 and the Champions Cup is a brutal, brutal competition in Europe. I learned a few things playing week-in, week-out -- a 35-week (season).
"I've learned with experience about my body and my mind. It's come with maturity as well."
Nonu may be playing his cards close to his chest about his All Blacks ambitions, but Saturday's clash with the Crusaders could demonstrate how realistic they are.
With modern defensive lines rushing up and shutting off options to go wide quickly, test teams need line-breaking midfielders to try and get behind the first wave.
That ability to bust first-up tackles and turn defenders around was Nonu's greatest strength in his heyday.
World Cup ambitions aside, Nonu also has a Super Rugby itch to scratch after losing two finals and four semi-finals with the Hurricanes.
"I haven't won Super Rugby before," he said. "I've come up short twice. I've played a lot of semi-finals for the Hurricanes.
"It's another driver this year. (But) the first game is this weekend and we are coming up against the ... champions so it's going to be a tough, tough game."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)