One-test All Black Kane Hames set for further responsibility in Chiefs' Super Rugby campaign
What a difference a year makes. This time last season Kane Hames didn't have a Super Rugby contract and was part-way through a six-month rehab programme on his troublesome knees.
Now, after a quite remarkable 2016 where he returned to the park and even played a test for the All Blacks, the loosehead prop is set to be an absolute key to the Chiefs' Super Rugby hopes.
With Mitchell Graham scratched from the season with injury, Hames is set for even more time in the No 1 jersey than anticipated, and will start the team's final preseason outing, against the Blues in Auckland on Friday evening, with the competition-opener against the Highlanders in Dunedin next Friday looming.
Siegfried Fisi'ihoi is the team's other loosehead option in the original squad, while Bay of Plenty 21-year-old Aidan Ross was this week named as a replacement player. But the onus will squarely go on Hames to lead the way for this campaign.
It's the 28-year-old's fourth season of Super Rugby, but one which this time has him thrust into a much bigger leadership role.
After two years with the Highlanders, Hames decided after the 2015 NPC season with Tasman to sort out issues with both knees - having struggled with bilateral patellar tendonitis for a couple of years. It was either surgery or change the way he moved, and he opted for the latter so that he could remain functional and not be laid up on a couch for months.
So, having turned down a couple of offers from France, he was drafted into the Chiefs' squad last year to replace the injured Pauliasi Manu, despite still having a bit of rehab work to do.
Hames credited his work with Tasman trainer Glenn Stewart for being able to come back in the shape he was, which saw him play four matches from the bench, then start the last five games of the season after Graham did a hamstring, before earning an All Blacks callup - coming off the bench in the opening test of the season, against the Wallabies in Sydney.
While Hames' rapid rise came as a surprise to many, it wasn't a complete shock for him because he had always been striving for the top.
"I still put it in my goals at the start of the year, to be an All Black," he said. "Just because there was nothing there on the table [a Super Rugby contract], was actually a lot to do with my own choice of taking time off to fix my knees up.
"It's something I've written in my goals again this year. There's processes to follow and every day is an opportunity to achieve that goal, with how I work. It starts with playing well, and then if I'm good enough, I'll get picked."
With the hope of several more test matches in the offing, Hames is far from looking at heading offshore, though said that if he was to in future, he'd be looking to follow where the current Chiefs coaches ended up, such is how grateful he is to them. As it is he's on a one-year deal with the Chiefs, having wanted to see who would take over next year, but with Colin Cooper confirmed, Hames is looking to re-sign.
"But if there was any time to ever go overseas, I could see myself looking to see where these coaches are, because they're quality men, and they gave me a chance. It's not necessarily that I feel like I owe them, because this is a business and you repay them by how you play, I guess, but fair play to them for giving them the chance that they did."
With Hames' knees "getting better and better" and with the issue around them not so much being about load but more about "movement patterns and strength balance", he is looking to continue improving, and be a quality sounding board for the rest of the propping group.
"Anyone that is the same shape and has the same mentality that they had when they were in the first year hasn't grown any, so in my fourth year I'll keep learning lessons and keep implementing them and hopefully keep getting better," he said.
"One thing that I found through my rugby career is if you don't ask a lot of questions you won't learn a lot. And I've always tried to help out where I can. I'm not saying I know everything. But I think a lot of young fellas, they first of all have to learn to help themselves before anyone can truly help them. If you're not willing to come in here and learn, then you can sometimes get left behind. I like to try and be a leader of sorts, but only to people who are leadable."
AT A GLANCE
Super Rugby preseason match
Blues v Chiefs, Suburbs Rugby Club
Chiefs: Shaun Stevenson, Toni Pulu, Anton Lienert-Brown, Johnny Fa'auli, James Lowe, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Tom Sanders, Mitchell Karpik, Taleni Seu, Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Nepo Laulala, Samisoni Taukei'aho, Kane Hames. Reserves: Hika Elliot, Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, Aidan Ross, Sosefo Kautai, Atu Moli, Matiaha Martin, Mitchell Brown, Lachlan Boshier, Finlay Christie, Jonathan Taumateine, Dwayne Sweeney, Tim Nanai-Williams, Latu Vaeno, Solomon Alaimalo.