Jerome Kaino, the All Blacks' silent assassin

DUNCAN JOHNSTONE
Last updated 13:03 23/10/2011

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He's the silent assassin - the softly spoken giant with the deadly hit; the guy whose smile turns into a snarl when times get tough.

And right now Jerome Kaino might just be the best rugby player on the planet. He has certainly been the All Blacks best forward on the game's biggest stage.

Tomorrow night he could be crowned the IRB's player of the year at a lavish function in Auckland. He and fellow All Blacks Ma'a Nonu and Piri Weepu are on the six-man shortlist.

But first things first, says Kaino: "Individual accolades won't mean anything if we don't win the World Cup."

And that's how he has been for these past few weeks - not only playing out of his skin but also keeping things in perspective as this rollicking cup campaign has gathered momentum.

Kaino's resilience has been remarkable. Apart from the last 30 seconds of the semifinal win against Australia last Sunday when he was subbed off with cramp, Kaino has played every minute of New Zealand's six cup games. He's also played 10 of the 11 tests over the last 12 weeks.

But the 28-year-old isn't just the All Blacks' iron man, he's also their hit-man. At 1.96m and 110kg he is now using those dimensions to bring a regular physical edge to his game.

He admits it took a bit of prompting from renowned enforcer Jerry Collins, the man he took over from in the All Blacks No 6 jersey, to "get more mongrel in your game".

Having entered the All Blacks in 2004 as the IRB's world under-21 player of the year, Kaino quickly found how hard the step up to test rugby is. He played just two internationals against Ireland before re-emerging in 2008 to take the baton from Collins. He's been there ever since, accumulating a further 45 caps.

"Back then I liked to range out wide ... I had a bit more pace than I do now and that was my game. For me to further myself in international rugby I had to get more mongrel in my game and that's what I've been working on. Even the coaches still say the mongrel thing to me now and then," Kaino said.

"I don't really call myself an enforcer or think like that. But I like to go out there and add that physical edge to the team. That's my game ... a physical game. I like to impose myself physically in a game as much as I can."

The workaholic Kaino says getting regular time in the jersey has slowly brought consistency to his game.

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"I think it's just time in the jersey and time in the environment. Also, a lot of the guys in the team I have played with for a long time now. That makes me feel a lot more comfortable with my role and how I've been playing the game.

"So it's a combination of getting comfortable with the guys around me and having that time out on the paddock."

But it's his consistent top-drawer performances that have stood him apart at this World Cup. When No 8 Kieran Read was injured on the eve of the tournament and skipper Richie McCaw was hobbled early with his foot complaint resurfacing at the worst time, the pressure went on Kaino not to just perform but to be a leader as well. Oh how he responded.

"The challenge went out ... I had to lift a bit more. But I've really enjoyed that. It's been inspiring. I thought we did really well to cope without Richie and Reado."

Now they are reunited as a combination and it's been a case of Read and McCaw trying to match Kaino's standards. They certainly clicked again as a unit against the Wallabies and know they must repeat that against a French side that might have some issues but has an undoubted strength in their back row.

As the team try to repeat the deeds of the 1987 All Blacks, Kaino has won the admiration of Allan Whetton who wore that No 6 jersey 24 years ago.

"He's probably the standout player of the tournament. He's certainly been the Mr Rock of the All Blacks," Whetton said of Kaino.

"He's maturing and he's at an age where I felt I was playing my best rugby. He's done his apprenticeship and you need to serve that in this position. That's why we are seeing his consistency.

"I also like to hear the way he wants to play all the time. He thrives on that and I wouldn't expect anything less. None of us liked missing games - we all got a bit narky because being in the team becomes like a second home to you."

Kaino's real home is a pretty nice place to be at the moment too.

The French firmly believe they've had a guardian angel looking over their good-fortuned run to the World Cup final and Kaino knows he's had someone special inspiring his incredible form.

Kobe Kaino is the All Blacks' World Cup baby. He was born in the week of the opening match against Tonga and seven weeks later proud dad reckons the little fella is going as strong as the All Blacks as they enter tonight's title match firm favourites.

"I think it's been great timing," Kaino said of his baby's arrival. He and fiancée Diana named him after Los Angeles Lakers basketball great Kobe Bryant. So far he's been a good brother for two-year-old sister Milan, a lucky charm for the Jerome and also, importantly, a good sleeper.

With the squad based in Auckland for the last three weeks, Kaino has had the luxury of staying at home most nights and reckons he's been getting his share of rest despite the demands of a new-born.

"My kids are an inspiration for me and Kobe has added a bit of incentive for me to go out and play well. He's been someone else for me to play for. I'm injury free and I feel like I've been playing well."

That's an understatement from the typically humble Kaino. But his summation of what lies ahead tonight is spot-on: "It's huge ... as big as it gets."

- Stuff

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