All Blacks driven by their own high standards
Liam Messam is rapt to have his "brother" back. Even if that sporting sibling does want what he has.
Messam was talking yesterday about having Jerome Kaino back in the All Blacks, though even he admits it's a "weird" situation as these one-time schoolboy chums go head to head for the No 6 jersey in what's shaping as a battle for the ages.
Kaino's return to the All Black fold could easily have got a lesser No 6's nose a little out of joint. But Messam, quite simply, is not that sort of person. The 30-year-old Chiefs co-captain loves the competition, believes it will bring the best out in both men and ultimately will benefit the team.
Besides, how could he not welcome back a fellow he's known since they were both raw-boned 16-year-olds rising through the national ranks, and have, over the course of time, become very close friends indeed.
"It is good having the brother back," Messam said yesterday as the All Blacks undertook a light day of recovery exercises in Auckland on the back of their weekend's Super Rugby commitments. "We've been mates since school, and I've already beaten him a couple of times at cards, so I'm already on him there."
Messam's attitude in many ways embodies so much of what is good about these All Blacks. Rather than dropping his bottom lip over the return of a significant threat to his jersey, he's relishing the return of a "brother".
Coach Steve Hansen is clearly ready to ride the rivalry for all it's worth, making the pair official "team buddies" for the three-test England series that opens at Eden Park on Saturday night.
There really is nothing between them as players. Messam has matured into a mighty performer for the All Blacks, complementing the world-class abilities of fellow loose forwards Richie McCaw and Kieran Read with a brand of hard-nosed, heavy-hitting, no-nonsense play over the two years since Kaino departed for Japan.
But Kaino's back now, and in no time at all has demonstrated that he remains every bit the player he was when he departed after the 2011 World Cup triumph where he was widely acknowledged as the best No 6 in the game.
There was a day when an incumbent All Black would have looked upon a challenger such as Kaino clearly is for Messam with all the relish that a turkey looks forward to Christmas with. But times clearly have changed.
"It's a bit weird when you've got one of your closest mates vying for the same position, but we're just going out there every day to get better and help each other get through it, and if we have the right mindset to do what's best for the team, then we'll be in good stead.
"Nah, I'm happy he's back. He's done great things with the Blues so far so and hopefully he can bring that form into the series."
Messam has seen pressure bring the best out in so many All Blacks over the years, and he's hoping their special rivalry can do likewise for them. "It's great having that competition and just help each other get better," he says.
He knows too well what time out of the All Black fold can do for a player. He was repeatedly challenged, and dropped, early in his career as his coaches sought improvements. He's pretty sure both Kaino, who's played 48 tests, and fellow loose forward Victor Vito return to the national setup with pretty steely mindsets.
"They're going to have that hunger to get out there and get that black jersey back on. I'll never forget where I've been and what's happened. It's what drives me every time I pull on that black jersey. You never know if it's going to be your last, so you always want to make sure it's your best performance."
Veteran centre Conrad Smith doesn't quite face the same pressure for the No 13 jersey from young newcomer Malakai Fekitoa, but he too talked about being invigorated by the presence of a pup nipping at his heels, and also being more than willing to share his knowledge
"I love being a teacher, love seeing a talent like him," Smith said. "He's a totally different player than I am and any way I can help him I'll enjoy doing. Maybe it's the stage of my career, but I've never been one for individual aspirations. It's about the All Blacks winning, and if there comes a day when they see someone better than myself in that 13 jersey, I'm all for it."
Smith recalled a day not too distant past when he had Richard Kahui pushing him pretty darn hard. "I think I ended up stepping up a level just because I saw how well he was playing. When you see someone with the skillset he has, you realise what it takes to be in the starting lineup of this side, and it does push you further."
This is the challenge facing England. These All Blacks are driven not just to meet the standards of their opponents, but their own mates.
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