Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Kaino toughness personified

Blues skipper among the recent All Blacks who dominate opponents with a physicality not backed by fists.
Jerome Kaino leads by example. Picture / Getty Images
Jerome Kaino leads by example. Picture / Getty Images

Rugby players described as hard men or tough buggers carried an underlying euphemism.

Enforcers worked on the principle of getting their retaliation in early, using intimidation and their fists to make up for playing deficiencies.

Much of that has been eradicated from rugby, certainly at the higher levels of the game, where television cameras and replays have eaten into those wanting to deal in cheap shots or marginal play.

That inspection has not turned down the levels of contact or diminished the physical elements in rugby.

The game is as challenging, if not more, than the days when Kevin Skinner, Colin Meads, Frank Oliver or Mark Shaw were dispensing their versions of justice.

Hard men - really hard men - who deliver and take huge doses of physical and mental grief are sprinkled through the game.

They don't flinch, they go even harder, as Richie McCaw did in his superb career. Keven Mealamu, too, the mild-mannered hooker who would rumble with anyone if riled or provoked; just ask Brendan Cannon.

Blindside flankers fit that rugged bill in various guises. Think through the last 25 years and you'd have Alan Whetton, Andy Earl, Jamie Joseph, Michael Jones, Reuben Thorne, Jerry Collins and Jerome Kaino on your list.

They had a range of styles but all played with venom which defied their opponents. There was the assassin tackling and fetching of Jones which left its physical imprint through the defiant and obstinate Collins and the belligerent force from Kaino with or without the ball.

He won't figure in the Super rugby playoffs because the Blues are still developing but his work in and around spells for a damaged shoulder and then after the test series with Wales showed what a force he is.

Most loose forwards look a similar size and you become immune to how big that is. Not long ago, Kaino arrived in a shop where I was doing some business. We had a brief chat as he was on his way home after training and picking up some supplies for a few guests. I'd forgotten how big he was. He tips the scales at 115kg when he plants his 1.96m frame, stats which would have qualified him as a lock in Meads' day.

Kaino lets his noise hit his rivals on the park where he leads the defensive line and bends opponents back who try to push past his immense power. That energy has been infectious for the Blues.

They have seen how hard Kaino works and feed from that dedication.

He is 33 and getting up for such confrontational work every week gets more draining every season. He's been an All Black since 2004, when he was taken to Europe on the end of year tour.

Tana Umaga was his captain then and is now coach at the Blues. Some teammates are still playing but they are all on club payrolls in France or England. Kaino is the sole surviving All Black after a World Cup triumph in 2011, a stint in Japan, then repeat World Cup success last year, when he started every match.

His test tally sits at 69 which is adrift of three others in the All Black pack. He's had time out with shoulder problems and battled other men such as Collins for the job.

This year, Elliot Dixon is giving him a nudge for his test jersey, as Brad Shields, Jordan Taufua, Akira Ioane and Tom Sanders keep up the pressure on the selectors.

But when you watch the way Kaino dealt to the Welsh and continued to headline the Blues defence, as well as creating havoc on attack, it's easy to see him collecting one distinction which has eluded him next year and competing against the Lions.

- NZ Herald

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Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

The latest commentary and analysis from senior rugby writer Wynne Gray. Wynne has been covering the All Blacks for more than 27 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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