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Jerome Kaino is under no illusions. Two years ago the former All Blacks blindside flanker was among the world's best players. And he knows every rugby follower expects him to return at that level, almost immediately, this week.
Kaino, alongside All Blacks second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu, will start from the bench as the Blues attempt to revive their stalling season against the flimsy Cheetahs at Eden Park on Saturday.
He's only likely to get 30 minutes, but in that brief glimpse some will instantly draw conclusions about his ability to cope with the increasing rigours Super Rugby requires.
Punters want to see Kaino's bone-crunching hits; his ball carrying prowess. They'll be looking for that same uncompromising, ruthless hard edge few could match in 2011.
Even Blues coach Sir John Kirwan did little to damper mounting expectations.
"We want to get the Jerome Kaino back who left New Zealand a couple of years ago as soon as possible," he said.
In reality, it will take time for Kaino to regain genuine match fitness. Provided he stays injury free, his best should shine through during the latter stages of the competition.
This week, after all, represents the first step in Kaino's quest to rejoin the All Blacks.
Physicality will be the biggest adjustment. After two years in Japan, where the pace of the game is frenetic but athletes' size pales in comparison, Kaino's body will soon feel the effects of heavy collisions. His recovery abilities will be tested.
"That's the challenge. Everyone is going to be expecting me to be the player that left after the World Cup. I'm going to strive to put out a good performance," he said.
"It was pretty quick in Japan. Physically, the size of the guys you are playing is not the same. Super Rugby is a lot more superior. That's going to be the biggest challenge, but I'm looking forward to reintroducing myself to that level of rugby."
Much has changed since Kaino's departure. He's watched from abroad as the game's speed and style has evolved.
He's viewed new team-mate Steven Luatua emerge as a world-class prospect and seen Chiefs co-captain Liam Messam tighten his skill-set to cement his role in the six jersey for the world champions.
"Speaking with the coaches, I'll be competing with that six and eight position," he said. "Seeing JK and Graham [Henry's] coaching style, they're week to week guys. If you perform on the weekend you get another go. I want to put my hand up when I'm on the field and hopefully gain selection next week.
"I want to get that competition going between me, Steven, Peter [Saili] and the other loose-forwards."
Nobody would dare write off Kaino's credentials. One only has to consider Tamati Ellison's remarkable return from Japan to see what can be achieved. The 30-year-old, though, realises the task before him.
"The game has got a lot faster," he noted. "You've got front-rowers who are running like inside backs these days. The All Blacks have tight forwards running out in the backs off-loading. The game has got a lot looser in that aspect.
"I've got my own challenges and goals I want to achieve when I get on the field. A lot of that is structured around what the Blues want to do. There will be nerves on game-day, but good nerves."
- Fairfax Media
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