Rugby: Kaino learns fast in Japan

By Michael Burgess

Former All Black has had to adapt his game and his physique, writes Michael Burgess.

The 1.96m All Black enjoys the relative anonymity in Japan. Photo / Michael Burgess
The 1.96m All Black enjoys the relative anonymity in Japan. Photo / Michael Burgess

For a man regarded as the world's best blindside flanker a little over a year ago, Jerome Kaino has found the adjustment to rugby in Japan surprisingly difficult.

"I have to admit it has been tougher than I thought," says Kaino, as we sit in the local Starbucks cafe, just outside Toyota City. "It's such a fast game here and it took a lot of getting used to. I have always liked to play a physical, power game but it's difficult if the ball has already left the ruck when you get there."

Kaino has had to slim down and speed up. He is 8kg lighter than when he arrived for pre-season. He is also grappling with the shoulder injury that ended his Blues season in March, after a piece of bone was knocked off his shoulder joint.

"It's been a bit weird," says Kaino, "trying to recover from the injury as well as get used to the Japanese way of rugby. Over here, I am not really a traditional No 6 - I play more like a No 8 - or as (team-mate) Stephen (Brett) would say, like a back, as I spend so much time in the backline."

Watching rugby in Japan, it is easy to understand his perspective - sometimes it looks more like sevens rugby, played with 15 men on the field. It can be frenetic and frantic.

Kaino reports that the shoulder is now "just about" 100 per cent and, after being managed carefully (he often played just 40 minutes in the first part of the season) he has now come through several full matches.

"Over here, the contact area is not as physical but everything else is different," says Kaino.

"There have been a lot of things to get my head around. In terms of game plan, they can be a bit fixed in their ways and they love to use their forwards all the time. It has its challenges and it's certainly not a picnic over here."

With the emergence of Liam Messam (and to a lesser extent Victor Vito), perhaps it's been easier to forget Kaino than we thought it might. But he was a towering presence in the All Blacks and it's maybe not too much to suggest that, with him still alongside Kieran Read and Richie McCaw, the events at Brisbane and Twickenham may have unfolded a little differently.

He was the All Blacks Player of the Year in 2011 (and shortlisted for the world award) and was on the field for almost every minute of the successful World Cup campaign, with his brilliant covering tackle on Wallaby Digby Ioane in the semifinal one of the overriding memories of that tournament.

He left for Japan earlier this year, saying at the time it was the toughest decision of his career, as he opted for financial security as well as something of a mental and physical break.

After a disappointing 10th place last season (out of 14 teams), Toyota are currently fifth in the Top League with one round to go. They can't make the top four - Suntory (George Smith, Fourie De Preez), Kobe (Josh Blackie, Jaque Fourie) Panasonic (Tony Brown, Mike Delany, Sonny Bill Williams) and Toshiba (David Hill, Steven Bates) have edged them out - but it has been a solid season. They have lost only three games, two to top sides Suntory and Panasonic, and will now focus on the All Japan Championships, involving the top four Top League clubs, two wildcard sides and the best university teams.

"I was brought here to change things - not only to get results but also change how the team plays," says Kaino. "They wanted more presence up front and for me to combine with Stephen (Brett) at 10."

Kaino has also tried to be a strong influence off the field: "The Japanese boys watch everything you do. They know you have come from an All Black environment and want to learn what you do and how you do things. Overall I have been pretty impressed - they have a great work ethic and its a very skilful game here."

Kaino lives on the outskirts of Toyota City, with Nagoya (Japan's third largest city) a 45-minute train ride away. It's a mix of suburban and rural - there are rice fields nestled among apartment blocks - and well away from the bright lights of Tokyo. He's compares his current surroundings to Hamilton, with a distinct lack of high rise buildings.

Like almost every resident of this city, Kaino also drives a Toyota, though he was mildly surprised when he found he had to buy his.

"It's part of the contract - you have to agree to buy a Toyota," laughs Kaino. "I guess that is a way to get some of their money back."

Along with financial security, more time with family was one of the big motivations for the move and he is getting plenty of that. Though the training sessions are longer (sometimes up to 2 hours) overall, there is a lot more free time.

"The lifestyle is great here and on the top of that, the food is a bonus," says Kaino, who admits to "hammering" the extensive ramen noodles, yakitori and sushi options in the area. The family have already done some travelling around Japan and recently enjoyed a beach break in Guam.

Kaino has enrolled in Japanese classes but his language skills remain "very limited", with daughter Milan (3) probably making greater progress in that area. He had a tutor provided by the club but those arrangements have slipped, so Kaino's only option is public classes at the local town hall.

The 1.96m All Black enjoys the relative anonymity in Japan, with requests for photos or autographs rare away from the after-match. He is not often recognised on the street - "most of the locals assume I am a basketball player or a K1 fighter" - and likes it that way.

Kaino admits it has been tough watching Steve Hansen's team trample (almost) all before them, after agonising for months over the decision to leave.

"Obviously in some ways I really miss being in that environment," says Kaino. "I was enjoying that brand of rugby and being one of the core group of leaders."

The 29-year-old reserves special praise for Liam Messam, after keeping a keen eye on his successors in the number six jersey.

"Both Liam and Victor (Vito) have been playing awesome," notes Kaino. "It has been healthy competition but it looked like Liam has nailed it down. I talk to him every now and again and he's doing well."

Kaino has one year left in Japan and then plans to return home. The Blues would be a logical destination, as well as another crack at the All Blacks.

"Hopefully - I'd love to come back (to the Blues)," says Kaino. "It's all about getting my body right and then challenging for that spot - if they want me.

"We'll see what happens. I know a lot of the young boys in the (2013) squad; they are good players and will go well next year. As for the All Blacks - well, of course, I would like another shot but a year is a long time in sport."Michael Burgess travelled to Japan with the assistance of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

- Herald on Sunday

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