By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Ma'a Nonu's long-drawn out debate over his playing future came to a close on Tuesday with an audible sigh of relief emanating from the New Zealand Rugby Union's Wellington headquarters.
Nonu's decision to sign with the NZRU and rejoin Super Rugby's Auckland Blues until the 2015 World Cup ensured the national body would avoid some murky bending of eligibility rules and provided the All Blacks with a proven matchwinner as they look to defend the Webb Ellis trophy.
The decision to sign Nonu, whether the NZRU was twisting his arm or not, is a gamble for Blues coach John Kirwan who is welcoming back a player who has already walked away from the team once and could upset the culture the former All Blacks winger is trying to develop.
Nonu after all has always been a player that marched to the beat of his own drum. He openly admitted to wearing eye liner early in his career and his dreadlocked hairstyle has often supported garishly coloured braids.
He was one of the first All Blacks to choose fluorescent coloured boots rather than the traditional black and this year he appeared to have bleached one of his eyebrows.
Originally making the All Blacks in 2003, he was singled out by then centre Tana Umaga who said he felt that at aged 21 his Wellington team mate had "it", the indescribable quality that would make him stand out as a great All Blacks player.
He initially struggled for regular game time early in his international career with Aaron Mauger often paired with Umaga in the All Blacks' midfield and was preferred as an impact player coming off the bench.
He was dropped for the 2007 World Cup and suggested at the time the door to rugby league was open, though he became a more permanent fixture from 2008 onwards and short of Sonny Bill Williams' cameo in rugby union, has barely been challenged for the inside centre role in the national side since.
Critics have suggested it is that knowledge that no-one was realistically challenging him for his All Blacks place meant he felt he could coast into the national setup without having to perform on the Super Rugby field.
Nonu's initial Super Rugby difficulties, however, were not performance related when he was told in 2011 by Wellington Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett to seek employment elsewhere.
Local media reported Hammett had fallen out with Nonu due to his persistent challenging of authority, hazing of younger players and poor discipline on the field, with the centre receiving too many yellow cards for the coach's liking.
He was given a lifeline by then Blues coach Pat Lam in 2012, though he joined them late after spending a season in Japan and his performances were poor, however, many felt fatigue was a factor after 18 months of non-stop rugby.
He then walked away from a handshake agreement he had with new Blues coach Kirwan for 2013, instead venturing south to Dunedin where he again under-performed for a Highlanders side that struggled under coach Jamie Joseph.
His last act in a Highlanders jersey was being sent off in their final game of the season and he declined a contract extension, prompting consternation at NZRU headquarters with none of the five Super Rugby teams saying they wanted him.
The national body had been increasingly resigned to him playing abroad in the first part of 2014, creating issues for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen due to the policy that restricts the team to players contracted to New Zealand-based sides.
NZRU chief executive Steve Tew and Hansen both said publicly they wanted Nonu to remain in New Zealand and they urged the franchises to find a solution, which irked Nonu's critics.
"The desperation with which the All Blacks and the NZRU are trying to accommodate Nonu is in danger of undermining their whole ethos," Fairfax Media sports columnist Mark Reason wrote last month when it was unclear where Nonu would end up.
"It is shameful that senior figures are bewailing the fact that Nonu can't find a Super Rugby franchise.
"The fault is Nonu's. He has had enough second chances."
Tuesday's decision has given him another. (Editing by Patrick Johnston)
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