Blindside beasts Messam, Kaino brace for battle
Who do you pick? The reliable, in-form incumbent or the world-class veteran who's returned with a vengeance? Marc Hinton examines the intriguing head to head for the All Black No 6 jersey.
There is no wrong answer as Steve Hansen ponders his first-choice blindside flanker for 2014, an intriguing showdown between inspirational Chiefs leader Liam Messam and formidable Blues punisher Jerome Kaino. Or to put it another way, immovable object versus irresistible force.
In cinematic parlance, it's Alien versus Predator, or maybe Godzilla against King Kong. In rugby terms, it's both an invidious and an envious position for the All Blacks coach. How does he pick between two such fine players? Then again, what does it matter if there's no bad choice?
Let's set the scene. Kaino, of course, was the blindside flanker for the 2011 World Cup-winning All Blacks, having survived two false starts to his test career to nail down the job fulltime from 2008 onwards.
He was, by common consensus, one of the best players on the planet in 2011, his mixture of withering front-on defence, steely ball-carrying and industrious workrate making him the perfect foil for the likes of Richie McCaw and Kieran Read.
But then Kaino departed for a two-season stint in Japan, opening the door for Messam. The Waikato bruiser, only an occasional All Black since his 2008 debut, did not need a second invitation, starting 10 of his 11 tests in 2012 and eight of his nine last year.
Despite the emergence of Blues youngster Steven Luatua in 2013, Messam remained the first choice and did not let his coaches down. He was stout on defence, took care of the blue-collar stuff in close and when the opportunity arose showcased his sevens skills.
Then the landscape shifted again, Kaino returning this year from Japan intent on regaining his All Blacks spot. Remarkably, he has taken up with the Blues where he left off, immediately unseating Luatua from the No 6 position and earning a predictable recall to Hansen's training camp squad.
All that remains now is that final step. All that's in his way is a bloke playing the rugby of his life who has no intention of standing aside.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie has observed Messam's rise over back-to-back Super Rugby championships, and has been impressed. "His contribution to the preparation of the team, his attitude and his passion for the Chiefs jersey is remarkable. He's very much a follow-me leader, says the right things, knows what buttons to push and leads from the front."
Then there's Messam's influence on the field, where he shifts between No 6 and No 8, depending on his team's needs. Adds Rennie: "He has a massive role in the leadership of our defence, is incredibly physical, has great line speed, gets in people's faces and is great as an assist tackler and tackler. Then there's his ability to carry, and his contact support is also outstanding."
Asked to nominate his co-captain's less visible contributions, Rennie wonders where to start. He talks about his ability to spark the second wave of attack and generate quick ball, his kick-chase and his ability to eliminate defensive threats ("he's one of the best in the game in this area," adds his coach).
What's really impressed Rennie is the way Messam responded to several clear messages from on high earlier in his career, in particular his axing from the 2011 World Cup squad. "You've got to give him credit - he's made some shifts that have made him an absolute necessity in an All Blacks squad."
Equally impressive has been Kaino on returning from Japan. It was expected two years away from the cauldron would have dulled his edge. It hasn't.
"He's picked up right where he left off, and that's no easy feat," notes Blues coach Sir John Kirwan.
"I didn't think he'd do it this quick because he's been in a country that doesn't have much physicality in its game."
Kirwan also lauds Kaino's professionalism and work ethic. "We're trying to preach to our young guys especially that preparation is the key to success at this level, and he embodies that."
Kaino did not want to be interviewed after being named in Hansen's training squad. His message was clear: he'll wait until he's achieved the real thing.
Kirwan: "Guys like him don't think about the end picture too much, they just do the process really well. We all know if he continues to play like this the chances of him getting higher honours are awesome."
Which brings us to the crux of the matter: Who wins the No 6 jersey? Read's ongoing head problems may create room for both against England, but at some stage D-day will come.
Rennie: "Liam and Jerome are good mates so it's pretty healthy competition.
"When Liam missed out on the World Cup it was pretty tough for him. He's answered in the best fashion by lifting his game. At the moment the jersey is his and other guys have to wrestle it off him."
Former All Black and Sky analyst Richard Turner says the "loyalty" aspect of an All Blacks coach cannot be overplayed. Messam stayed and responded. Turner figures it's his job to lose.
"They're pretty similar in terms of the attributes they bring, and very similar in the way they play. That's the challenge - neither has a great strength that the other doesn't, and . . . neither has a huge weakness that the other doesn't."
But Turner sees another dimension in the Aucklander.
"At the peak of their abilities, you would have to say Kaino was the better player. In 2011 he was magnificent. I don't think Messam has risen to those heights.
"There's an adage that no one comes back from Japan a better rugby player, but Kaino has come back totally refreshed, fit, enthusiastic and is performing accordingly.
"Kaino has leapfrogged Luatua who was the next big thing, and pretty quickly too. But I think Messam is a bigger hurdle than that, and playing some good footy, too."
Sunday Star Times