Jerome Kaino was just 21 when he became an All Black — too early, he tells Alan Perrott. The rugby star talks about his struggle to cope with the pressures, including his drink-drive conviction, and looking forward to the tournament of his life.
Tim Connolly was watching a sturdy pair of bookends when a wrecking ball caught his eye.
As impressed as he was by the teenage rugby player, he kept his thoughts to himself. Who knew how the parents and coaching staff of the Papakura High School 1st XV would react to a poacher in their midst?
Maybe they'd be more surprised than angry? After all their team was a perennial struggler and on this particular Saturday was coming a distant second to Aorere College.
But Connolly saw gold in their defeat - as the newly-appointed coach of Saint Kentigern's 1st XV it was a chance to keep pace with schoolboy rugby's arms race. This was 1999 and, after the success of Graham Henry's Kelston Boys' sides, any Auckland school with ambitions of rugby glory was unashamedly dangling scholarships in front of the best raw talent from less well-off suburbs.
On this occasion Connolly had turned up to check out the Afoa brothers, John and James, who were propping up the Papakura scrum. He knew their pedigree from his time coaching Counties' youth sides - but it was a rangy Samoan kid playing at centre who grabbed his attention.
Sure, he was a bit lax when turning to chase opposition kicks - much like Jonah Lomu in his early days - but that could be coached out of him. It was the natural speed and bone-crunching aggression that hinted at star quality.
This was Connolly's first glimpse of Jerome Kaino.
Born on Tutuila, the main island in American Samoa, in 1983 and the third of six children, Kaino's first home is dubbed "Football Island" because it has produced more professional gridiron players than anywhere else in the United States. If Kaino hadn't come to New Zealand in 1987, following the lead of his father's brother, his family reckons he would have ended up in the army.
After settling in South Auckland, he began playing junior league for the Papakura Sea Eagles and turned to rugby at secondary school only so he could play with his new mates. Academically, not much was going on. He was almost marking time.
"It's not that I was a bad boy or anything," he says. "I had the right friends and things like that, I just never focused that much on anything."
He and the Afoas had been mates since he was 12, so when Connolly convinced the brothers' parents to send them to Saint Kentigern College, it was always likely their friend would tag along.
Reunited as sixth formers the following year, the trio were joined by two more new recruits, Kieran Read (from Rosehill College) and Joe Rokocoko (from James Cook High School).
If such blatant poaching angered the school's southern rivals, as well as plenty of neutral observers, Connolly remains unrepentant.
"I still don't know if poaching is right or wrong," he says. "But it went on in every rugby school I knew and morally I've got no issue with it when you consider what has happened to all those boys since."
Kaino was given a position in the Saint Kentigern forward pack.
"He hadn't filled out yet, but he was still a big boy and really destructive with it, so when the backs didn't want him I threw him into number six straight away," says Connolly. "The only problem was that we couldn't lift him in the lineout, so he did the lifting instead."
With the Afoa brothers on board, Saint Kentigern finished fourth in the 1999 premier competition. Once Kaino and the others arrived the following year, they improved to second behind St Peters. Then in 2001, they beat King's College in the final.
Peter Milligan, one of the parents who watched every game, says Kaino stood out immediately. "My wife and I always said he was earmarked for bigger things and that if anyone in the team was going to be an All Black, it would be him. He could cut players in half, you'd hear the crunch from the sideline. You couldn't help cringing."
Kaino's growing reputation saw him recruited into Counties' age-group rep sides, Auckland schoolboys and then the New Zealand schoolboys' side on top of his 1st XV matches.
As lifestyles go, it was already far from normal for the rising star.
"It was kind of strange," says Kaino. "Sometimes I do feel like I missed out on my youth. Like what my friends did.They've done their OEs, they've done the big parties and all the late nights, but from a young age, I've had to be pretty disciplined in what I do. I guess it's what you have to do if you want to live your dream."
Even odd-jobbing became about rugby. When he wasn't playing he was working at his aunt's produce shop in the Otara shopping centre. It just so happened that the store was also part-owned by All Black prop Olo Brown and World Cup winning loosie, Michael Jones.
It was from Jones that Kaino gained his playing credo: it is better to give than to receive.
"I remember that everyone was very mindful at the time that he was a real star in the making," says Jones. "I was very impressed with him. We had a few chats about the game and I remember he was a real sponge, he lapped everything up. He was also hugely respectful, your typical young Samoan, and I think he's shown a lot of class in whatever he's done ever since - which would suggest he's making a really good fist of everything."
Then came 2004 and everyone's expectations seemed to have been realised. Kaino was elevated to Auckland's NPC team, appearing in every game, and he was named player of the tournament at the under-21 World Cup as well as IRB age grade player of the year. In November he was selected for the end-of-year All Black tour.
This was heady stuff, and climaxed with his selection for the match against the Barbarians at Twickenham.
"That was a really emotional time for me," he says. "I never thought I would get the opportunity because I'd thought I was on tour mostly to get some experience of the All Black environment and learn the ropes. So when [captain] Richie [McCaw] handed me my first jersey, I was just stoked. That was something really special."
His performance was special as well. The man of the match not only rattled his former Auckland captain, Xavier Rush, and age-grade sparring partner Schalk Burger, he also made a goose of former Wallaby and Kangaroo Matt Rogers while scoring his first All Black try.
But all was not as fantastic as it seemed.
"It happened way too early for me," admits Kaino now. "I was kind of selected on potential, and yeah, of course I was really happy to become an All Black. But then, the next year, I didn't really show any substance to back it up ... I guess everyone knew me after that tour and I was a bit of a marked man, but I hadn't matured enough as a player to deal with it. I still needed to grow up a bit."
All the same, his potential saw him win his first test caps against Ireland in June 2006. Then he was dropped.
It was a troubling time. Kaino had his first serious injuries to deal with, including a shoulder problem that required surgery, and his old focus issues were back with a vengeance.
"I was only 21 when I was first selected and I was doing all the things that normal 21-year-olds do when I was supposed to be doing what 21-year-old All Blacks should be doing. My life outside rugby really wasn't in line with what I did on the field and it took a while to get that together. I still managed to put in some good performances, but I realised pretty quickly that there was no way I'd get back in if I kept up my old lifestyle, my old mentality."
Instead of moping he tried using each mission as motivation to work harder. He had regular All Black six Jerry Collins in his way so he took on the hardman's famous physicality and tried to take it a step further.
Everything seemed back on track in 2008. His partner was pregnant and he was selected for the first two tests of the year.
Then he almost self-destructed.
On June 27, at 9am - the week before the opening Tri-nations test against South Africa - Kaino was involved in a nose-to-tail accident and failed a subsequent alcohol breath test. He not only had to appear in court, the NZRU was threatening a misconduct hearing.
"That was a massive learning year for me, especially with that drink driving thing. It definitely hurt my family and forced me grow up a lot more. Mum and Dad had a few words for me as well, stuff like 'it's not what you've done, it's how you come back from it' and 'make sure it doesn't happen again, you're a better person than that'.
"That made me sit down and think about being an All Black and what I had to do to stay one, because the reality of being in the team is much better than I'd ever thought it would be. When I used to dream about it I only went as far as outfitting day - getting all that cool gear - but then, getting to live the lifestyle, having the team mates around me and the whole legacy of the jersey ... it's far exceeded my expectations.
"So I used all of that as motivation for the next test. And with everything that was going on in the media, Graham Henry and all the coaching staff showed a lot of faith in selecting me. Getting out there and putting a performance in on the field was the only way I could pay them back."
In a tight match, Kaino scored the crucial second try and would have had another but for a crook offside call.
And really, he hasn't looked back since.
"I've had so much that has happened in such a short time. But I think I've learned a lot and I now understand that as an All Black the spotlight is always on you. So I have to live a certain way and I have to be squeaky clean because a lot of people look up to us and kids look at us in a certain light. For me to appear in court was a real kick in the guts for them. So I keep myself busy looking after my daughter, Milan, and I go surfing with my brother-in-law.
"There are times when being an All Black can get in the way, especially if I don't play so well - people aren't shy about letting you know - or if I want to take the family out to lunch, but on the whole it's pretty good. I've only had a couple of nasty incidents. That's when you have to bite your lip and walk away, reacting just isn't worth it."
At 28, Kaino expects to keep playing until he's 35. And with a family to look after he's already thinking of life after rugby.
He started a business diploma at AUT a few years back but dropped out. Now he's thinking back on his aunt's produce shop and considering following former All Blacks Eric Rush and Robin Brooke into the supermarket business.
Such plans are on hold for now though. Everything is focused on getting to the World Cup, and his constant tugging on his shirt sleeves to get them past his large biceps shows he's in fighting nick.
He's 1.96m of tattooed muscle and though he speaks softly his eyes flash when the tournament is mentioned.
"Yeah, I'm excited ... I've been looking forward to this for a long time, especially having it here at home. But I'm trying to stay relaxed and do what comes naturally. Whatever happens I have to make sure that when I walk on to the field I take the mana of being an All Black with me.
"It's a mentality that's huge with us - when you put that jersey on you don't take a step back, and when you're surrounded by all the other guys in the team thinking the same way, that's a powerful feeling to feed off."