Jerome Kaino has been earmarked by the Chiefs alongside cross-codes superstar Sonny Bill Williams as the prime targets to ensure a Super Rugby championship treble next year.
The news that Chiefs coach Dave Rennie is chasing Kaino comes as Blues coach Sir John Kirwan travels to Japan this week with one of his goals being to convince the 48-test All Black to return to Auckland next season.
While Kaino's preference is to rejoin the Blues, the Chiefs are desperate for a No 8. This year the defending champions played four different players in the position. The Sunday Star-Times understands the Chiefs are exploring the possibility of commercial partners aiding their ability to form a competitive offer for the 30-year-old. It is now a two-way battle for his valuable services.
If the Blues can't put together a compelling package, Kaino will consider linking with the Chiefs where he would join all-star loose forwards Liam Messam, Sam Cane and Tanerau Latimer.
Much of the Blues' budget has been spent on securing Benji Marshall. The franchise will not be able to offer anywhere near the $260,000 third party top-up they pulled together for the rugby league star.
If a decent third-party deal can be compiled by either the Blues or Chiefs, Kaino is close to signing a two-year deal that runs until the 2015 World Cup with the New Zealand Rugby Union. A deal could be reached within the next two weeks.
Kaino's contract would come with a caveat - an "out clause" if he is not selected for the All Blacks. With incumbent Messam, Steven Luatua's rapid emergence, Brad Shields' potential and Victor Vito's presence in the wings, Kaino faces stiff competition. His promotion to the national team would be no certainty. But if he can recapture anywhere close to the form that saw him recognised as one of the best players in the world in 2011, his physicality will be hard to overlook.
Initially, though, at either the Chiefs or Blues, he is likely to switch to No 8.
Kaino's main desire is to reclaim the black jersey but he is also conscious of minimising his financial sacrifice. He is thought to be on $1 million annually in Japan and, even with provincial, Super Rugby and NZRU salaries combined, he would be lucky to earn half that amount here. The NZRU is also wary of committing to a large wage before assessing if the 111kg Kaino can re-establish himself after two years in the high-tempo Japanese game.
While Kaino's future remains uncertain, senior All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock and No 8 Kieran Read are expected to soon ink three or four-year contract extensions with the NZRU and Crusaders. Both are likely to receive sabbaticals to enable their workloads to be managed through to the British and Irish Lions series in 2017. By that point Read is likely to be All Black captain.
Whitelock and Read have been savvy by waiting for last week's sign-off on the collective agreement. Both players will receive a fair slice of the extra $1.8 million available to the All Blacks over the next three years.
With still no clear Super Rugby home for nomad All Blacks second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu next year, sabbatical options are now being explored.
Veteran hooker Keven Mealamu is expected to gain his wish for a two-year contract extension until the World Cup, but flanker Luke Braid is favoured to take over the Blues captaincy from Ali Williams.
BLACK TO THE FUTURE
Jerome Kaino: Interest from Blues and Chiefs. Two-year deal with NZRU on table. Out clause if he isn't selected for All Blacks
Sam Whitelock: Offered four-year extension with sabbatical
Kieran Read: Offered four-year extension with sabbatical
Ma'a Nonu: Exploring sabbatical options to skip Super Rugby
Keven Mealamu: Expected to sign two-year extension with Blues and NZRU
- © Fairfax NZ News
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