A revived, refreshed and reinvigorated Jerome Kaino is living proof that a stint in Japan is no kiss of death for your career, writes MARC HINTON.
At the end of 2011 Jerome Kaino was one of the foremost players in the best team on the planet. He was in the form, and prime, of his life, and they’d just draped a World Cup winner’s medal around his muscular All Blacks neck. Then he walked away from it all to play his footy in Japan – a place, with all due respect, where rugby careers traditionally go to die.
But not this fellow’s. Rather than a death sentence, the mid-career move – Kaino was 29 when he headed for sushi country – proved to be a panacea for the strapping American Samoa-born loose forward. By the time his All Blacks captain Richie McCaw raised that Webb Ellis Cup in October of 2011 his body was worn down. He needed to step away from the shuddering intensity and relentlessness of professional rugby in New Zealand. The season, stretching from February to November, had taken a toll, and a big-money offer to ply his trade in the less demanding Japanese Top League was too enticing to turn down.
Nonetheless, it unnerved All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who was none too pleased to lose arguably his best player of 2011.
‘I never wanted him to go in the first place,’ Hansen admitted during the June series against England. ‘We had a bit of a discussion about that, but he always said he’d come back and he’s come back at the right time.’
Kaino had been a colossus for the All Blacks en route to their second global title, starting every game and thriving on the added responsibility assumed as fellow loose forwards McCaw and Kieran Read battled injury. But when he lasted just a couple of games of the 2012 Super Rugby season, succumbing to a serious shoulder injury that needed surgery, it was clear he needed time out. When that contract from Toyota Verblitz was waved under his nose, he couldn’t sign it quickly enough.
‘It was important physically and mentally to refresh,’ says Kaino ahead of what will be his first Rugby Championship campaign. ‘I still wanted to play rugby, and my heart was still here in New Zealand, but my body needed a break. I see someone like Kevvy [Mealamu], who stayed and is still in good nick, and I ask myself: could I have done it by staying here and having a minor sabbatical? But I wouldn’t change it. It was great for my family to have some time out, and great for me to play some different rugby, and I was able to stay fit.’
‘I still wanted to play rugby, and my heart was still here in New Zealand, but my body needed a break'
Remarkably so. Two seasons of the lower intensity Japanese game didn’t so much decrease Kaino’s abilities, as revive them. He enjoyed the experience at Toyota, under former All Black Filo Tiatia, before rejoining the Blues this year for what he considered a no-guarantees return to the New Zealand game. Kaino looked at the talent that had emerged in his absence, and figured he was in for the fight of his life to regain his place in the pecking order.
Nationally his friend Liam Messam had taken ownership of the All Blacks No 6 jersey he had vacated, and even at the Blues youngster Steven Luatua had emerged as one of the most exciting prospects in the New Zealand game.
‘It was a big gamble to come back,’ Kaino reflects. ‘I thought it would take a little longer for me to get used to it. People see the product that gets put out on the field but I had to put a lot of work in to come back.’
In other words, it’s not been as easy as it has appeared for Kaino, who kept Read’s No 8 jersey warm in the first two June Tests against England before slotting back in at No 6 for the third.
‘Easy is not a word I would use to describe the transition,’ he says. ‘It’s been tough but I’ve enjoyed it. Physically, I don’t recover till about Tuesday or Wednesday, trying to keep up with these young fellows who are back up on a Monday.’
But after a top-notch campaign with the Blues and then three pretty impressive Tests against England, it would appear Kaino’s hard work has paid off. Heading into the Championship he had the inside track on the No 6 jersey, but as always remained grounded, focused and motivated.
‘It was a huge learning curve. The first game [against England] was awesome; I was running on adrenaline and the excitement of being back there. But over the three Tests there were some bad habits I learned in Japan where I switched off. But that’s part of it. You hope to improve every week. It was a struggle at times, having to lift my game from Japanese rugby to Super Rugby, then to Test footy. I enjoyed learning how to change my mindset.’
Naturally Kaino was impressed by how well the All Blacks coped in his absence – losing just the one Test in two seasons.
‘Deep down you wanted to be a part of it. That was a driving force for me coming back.’
And now he’s back?
‘I want to take that All Blacks jersey to another level. And I really want to win a championship with the Blues. There are a lot of areas where I can improve. People see me as that crash-bash, intimidating type player, but you see loose forwards out in the open these days like Ardie Savea and Kieran Read offloading. Those are the skill sets I want in my game.’
Back from Japan, back on top of his game and back in black. It’s been a big year already for Jerome Kaino, and soon to get even bigger.
– This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine