The San Diego Legion announced that they have signed centre Ma’a Nonu for the 2020 season. This is without a doubt the biggest signing in Major League Rugby history. It eclipses the Rugby United New York signings of Mathieu Bastareaud and Ben Foden as well as the Glendale Raptors signing of Digby Ioane.
Simply put, Nonu is an All Blacks legend. The 37-year-old is widely regarded as one of the best centres to ever wear the black jersey. In 103 caps for the All Blacks, Nonu has scored 31 tries (second to Tana Umaga among centres) and was part of Rugby World Cup-winning teams in 2011 and 2015. Nonu is known for his physical ball carrying style. He frequently charges right at the defense forcing them to step up and make a big tackle. More often than not, Nonu would power his way through those tackles generating plenty of linebreaks.
Nonu’s success with this style of play at the international level, in Super Rugby (with the Hurricanes, Highlanders, and Blues), and in the Top 14 with Toulon has led to may others emulating his style.
On the pitch, Legion Head Coach Rob Hoadley must be ecstatic. The Legion had one of the best backlines in MLR last year. Most of that core is returning in 2020 and Nonu’s addition becomes a terrifying proposition for opposing defenses. Nonu will join JP du Plessis in the centres.
Ultimately, with their returning players and the signing of former Biarritz Olympique and Western Force flyhalf Luke Burton, the Legion backline looks to be shaping up something like:
9 Nate Augspurger
10 Luke Burton
11 Ryan Matyas
12 Ma’a Nonu
13 JP du Plessis
14 Save Totovosau
15 Joe Pietersen
With that, this could leave some talented players like Mikey Te’o coming off the bench. The backline was a major reason San Diego were one of the league’s top teams last year. Nonu’s addition improves it dramatically.
Off the pitch, Nonu’s signing is massive for not only the San Diego Legion, but Major League Rugby as a whole. Nonu returned from Toulon to join the Blues of Super Rugby where he had another great season. Although he wasn’t selected for the Rugby World Cup squad, he was part of the discussion (at least in the New Zealand media) throughout the summer. Nonu showed that he is still capable of playing in the best league in the world.
The fact that he has chosen to sign in Major League Rugby will make headlines around the rugby world and drastically raise the profile of the league.
Moreover, Nonu’s signing does not just raise the profile of the league for media and fans around the world, it also raises the profile of the league among players. Nonu’s signing could open the door for future big signings. Player’s all talk to each other. If Nonu enjoys his experience in North America, he could tell other players about it. Similarly, players in various stages of their careers who are looking for a club may now seek out MLR.
After all, if Nonu is here, and Bastareaud is here, and Ioane is here, why wouldn’t you want to be playing in this league?
All MLR teams, not just San Diego, should be heavily marketing Nonu to get crowds out to their games. San Diego obviously can do a lot more with him because he is on their team. However, Nonu is the type player that every team can leverage in marketing.
It can be done in a similar way to when Ontario Hockey League teams would routinely have record crowds when they welcomed Connor McDavid’s Erie Otters to town. Just the allure of McDavid put people in seats. Nonu could have the same impact.
If people ask “Why should I come to the rugby game this weekend?” You can respond with “because you will get a chance to see All Black legend Ma’ Nonu play”. Not everyone can afford season tickets or attend multiple games a year. If you can only see one live MLR match in 2020, the San Diego Legion just became the team to go watch.
All teams should be leveraging this signing and hopefully, Nonu and the Legion are playing in front of massive crowds wherever they go.
For Toronto Arrows fans, circle Sunday May 10th, 2020 on your calendars. Ma’a Nonu will the San Diego Legion will be making a visit to Lamport Stadium.