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Ma’a Nonu made four appearances for Ngati Porou East Coast during the Heartland Championship.
Ma’a Nonu embraced Rico Gear with a hug and waved to the supporters in the Sir Brian Lochore Stand as he made his way to the bench after his fourth and final appearance for Ngāti Porou East Coast.
The All Blacks legend is set to return to the United States next year after re-signing with Major League Rugby club San Diego Legion but Nonu said he will never forget the last month he spent playing in the amateur Heartland Championship.
The 103-test midfielder and World Cup winner made one final appearance in the sky blue jersey on Saturday, playing in front of his family as East Coast ran in six tries to beat Wairarapa Bush 34-19 in Masterton.
Nonu saw 51 minutes of action before he was replaced by another former All Blacks player, Rico Gear, early in the second half.
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Gear made his East Coast debut at 43 years-old – six years after his last game of competitive rugby.
“It was a great experience playing in the Heartland Championship for the last four weeks. It’s something that I will never forget,” said Nonu, who was swarmed by local kids after the fulltime whistle sounded.
After returning home from a stint with French Top 14 club Toulon in June, Nonu was invited by coach Hosea Gear to have a hit-out for East Coast in the lead-up to their historic 50-26 win over Buller in Ruatoria last month.
East Coast had not won in 54 games prior to Nonu’s debut – a losing streak that spanned eight years.
But with the help of their high-profile recruit, they finished the season with three wins from the last four games, and won back-to-back games in the Heartland Championship for the first time since 2012.
“He [Hosea] gave me that opportunity and I’m grateful for that,” Nonu said.
“I came back from France in June, so I’m just gearing up for the next gig, but it’s great to put on the sky blue jersey.
“I was just trying to add a bit of value to the side and just rub shoulders with the brothers who have day-to-day jobs.
“They live in different areas on the East Coast, and it was great.”
Although he will turn 40 next May, Nonu said he was still enjoying his rugby and was not ready to hang up his boots.
He will head to the US early next year for his “second coming” with San Diego.
“It’s another opportunity to go play rugby,” he said. “Who knows [how long I will play for]. It’s day by day. I’m just enjoying it.”