Kaino gears up for 50th beside brother in arms
These are special times for hard-hitting loose forward Jerome Kaino who tomorrow plays his 50th test for the All Blacks in the company of a bloke he always figured he'd be butting heads with for his jersey.
As has been well documented, Kaino has a pretty close friendship with fellow All Black loose trio member Liam Messam, forged back in their days as high-level schoolboy players and solidified by their common bonds ever since.
Kaino, the 31-year-old Aucklander, of course only returned to New Zealand rugby at the start of this year after spending two seasons in Japan following the 2011 World Cup triumph. It's been a triumphant homecoming by the 110kg physical specimen as he's pretty much taken up where he left off, first with the Blues and now in the national jersey of his country.
He's honoured, of course, to bring up his 50th cap as the starting No 8 here tomorrow night against England in the second test of a series that is a lot more competitive than some of us figured. That he gets to do so alongside Messam, who for now has an unobstructed run in the No 6 jersey thanks to Kieran Read's head issues, makes it even better.
"It's pretty cool," Kaino said, with a smile that underlined those sentiments. "We spoke to each other before I came back thinking we were going to butt heads to try and get that jersey. We spoke the other day about how special it would be if I got to start alongside him in my 50th.
"It's going to happen and I'm stoked to start it alongside him."
That inter-squad competitiveness, mate against mate, fate tied to fate, is a hallmark of these All Blacks. It's one of the factors that keeps them consistently atop the world game.
"It's right across the board," Kaino agreed. "Everyone keeps each other honest and it helps to pick up your performance. It's happened a lot this week, and we're expecting a better performance."
Kaino said the All Blacks had been offered a timely reminder of the competitiveness and all-round strengths of Stuart Lancaster's England squad last week in Auckland when they struggled to a 20-15 victory against a touring outfit down a fair few heavy-hitters.
"They're a very good side. We expected them to be physical and they were. I'm expecting a much improved England side and I'm hoping we can improve as well."
He had been particularly impressed with his opposite number, Ben Morgan. "He's a very similar player to Billy Vunipola, and his ball-carrying was exceptional. He also caught me on one of the over-throws at a lineout."
There's been a lot of talk this week about the All Blacks' desperation to right a few wrongs from Eden Park, and they certainly need to up their execution of some of the basics of the game.
Though Kaino acknowledged a need for the forwards to lay a much better platform for their backs, he also spoke about the need to leave last week's disappointments behind.
"We don't really want to focus on last week and make that the motivation to perform. We know we didn't perform, and we've got to have better continuity and combinations this week. We'll be working on doing our basics well and hopefully that improves our game."
Talk of England deliberately slowing the game down didn't concern Kaino too much, though he did say "I back our group to lift the tempo of the game and push the English. I don't think we'll get too flustered about what they try to do and just try to play our game."
But whatever happens tomorrow night, Kaino admits to some satisfaction at being able to work his way so quickly back into a team in which he never takes his place for granted.
"Watching the guys perform the last couple of years it was always in the back of my mind I wanted to achieve 50 [caps] and also 100 for the Blues. They were the ones I really wanted to achieve and were part of my decision to come home.
"I would have been happy getting any spot in the team, but to be able to start my 50th test is huge."
The soon-to-be half centurion also said he was "more than proud" of the standard set by Messam in the No 6 jersey in his absence. "He's lifted that bar a lot higher, and added a dimension to that jersey. It's been awesome to watch him."
Then Kaino, who shared digs with Messam for a couple of nights this week when his roommate Dom Bird fell ill, was asked who would win if they did indeed butt heads.
"Oh, Liam for sure," he said with a smile.
And in the boxing ring? "I've seen him box and that's one sport I'll stay away from."
Right now there's no need for any of that. There's room in these All Blacks for both.