Preparing to run out at Hamilton's FMG Stadium at Super Rugby level is a position Richard Kahui never thought he'd be in again.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Kahui was a force in midfield for the Chiefs. On attack, he ran good lines, had strength and footwork to beat defenders, and pace to burn them off. On defence, he had a knack for coming up with the sort of hits that drew gasps and cheers from fans.
He earned 18 appearances for the All Blacks, and was an integral part of their 2011 World Cup-winning campaign. However, Kahui constantly had issues with injury, and after four shoulder reconstructions in six years, took up an offer in Japan in 2013. Tough at the time, it was a move that helped extend his career.
Today, almost a decade after leaving Kiwi shores, Kahui will line up for the Western Force against the Chiefs in Hamilton – his first time facing his former club at their home ground since returning to Super Rugby in 2020.
For Kahui, now 36, running out at his long-time home venue was something he assumed would never happen again.
"I loved playing for the Chiefs, always wanted to be an All Black and I decided as a player this was something I was going to do until I couldn't do it any longer. With the way my body was, the decision had been made for me," Kahui tells the Herald of taking up the offer in Japan.
"Once I got to Japan, I had a really good time over there; really enjoyed the rugby, made some really good friends, but more importantly I managed to keep playing and didn't get injured. That gave me that year-on-year which I missed here in New Zealand, and I think it just gave my body a chance to catch up to where it was meant to be. It worked out really well in the end.
"Here I am, back in Super Rugby – something I never thought I'd ever do again."
In Japan, there was less demand on Kahui's body. Playing for Toshiba Brave Lupus from 2013-19, he said the size of the athletes wasn't the same as those playing in New Zealand, and he was given a three-to-four month break after each season.
That break is foreign to players in New Zealand, who go straight from Super Rugby into the National Provincial Championship, or straight into the international realm if they're good enough to earn a chance with the All Blacks.
While he was abroad, Kahui stayed in touch with Kiwi coaches such as Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith, with the intention of getting his body right before ultimately returning home for another run at the black jersey.
He realised early on in his trip that wasn't going to happen.
"As time went on, I realised there were certain things I couldn't do as well as I could when I was in New Zealand, just with the range of my shoulders and the confidence, it felt like the time had moved past us in Super Rugby."
His former Chiefs coaches weren't the only ones in contact over the years. Blues coach Leon MacDonald and Crusaders coach Scott Robertson had also reached out to see if he had any interest in a return to New Zealand.
Kahui felt part of that was due to New Zealand talent being lost to big-money offers abroad and the local teams were starting to feel the pinch in squad depth.
It wasn't until Covid-19 hit that he opened the door to another stint in Super Rugby. Set to go back to Japan for the 2020 season, issues around travelling and having to spend extended time away from his wife and children saw his time with Toshiba come to an end.
Then, one night while on a camping trip in Warwick, Queensland, he got a call from his manager with an offer.
"I literally hadn't started running or been to the gym in, say, three months. These are the sorts of breaks I was having in Japan which ultimately helped my body.
"But I was sitting around the campfire – I'd probably had three or four beers by this stage - and I got a call from my manager asking if I had any interest in playing for the Force. This was the first week of the tournament in 2020."
When Kahui had previously been approached about going back to Super Rugby, he had thought about it, but never really considered doing so for fear of injury or embarrassing himself. He'd had plenty of experience when it came to injuries, and that wasn't something he wanted to risk revisiting.
"The first time you get a serious injury, it's unlucky but you rehab and it's a new experience. You go through the rehab process, you come back and play until you reinjure it; or it's a similar injury but different shoulder," he recalls. "You think, this can't be right, then by the third or fourth or fifth time, it's just shattering.
"I remember when I did the last time – well it wasn't the last time, but I thought it was the last time – in 2012. I think Digby Ioane landed on my back and popped it out. I just remember crying; being so upset. I'd finally been able to put 2011 together and was part of that Chiefs side in 2012 that ended up going on to win back-to-back Super Rugby titles. I just felt like I was starting to find my feet in who I was as a rugby player.
"It was really disappointing, but I think what I managed to learn from those experiences was you can only control what you can control. I worked really hard to rehab – when I got injured, I never thought to myself, 'Jeez, I wish I had done something different'. I tried my best to come back in the best condition with the Chiefs doctors and physios, and All Blacks doctors and physios. For me, for some reason it just wasn't meant to be."
It was a conversation with his wife Amy that swayed him into saying yes to the Western Force. Initially, Kahui was only signed to a two-month deal. He is now in his third season with the club.
This campaign with the Force is likely to be Kahui's final season playing rugby at the professional level. Instead, he is starting to think about life after rugby and not just what that looks like, but where. After years of moving around for work, Kahui says it is time for his family to settle in and put roots down somewhere – be that in Australia or New Zealand.
In somewhat fitting fashion, two of his final three matches on New Zealand soil will be against the two teams he played for – the Highlanders last weekend, who he got his start with in 2006, and the Chiefs this weekend. The other, a midweek catch-up fixture against Moana Pasifika.
For a player who many thought was going to be forced into an early retirement due to his injuries, Kahui has been able to enjoy a long career. While it required some sacrifices, he said every decision was ultimately for the best.
"I don't regret any of the decisions I made. To come back into Super Rugby, I've had a great experience here, and I definitely don't regret going to Japan.
"The only thing I probably do regret is that my body wasn't good enough to be the player I wanted to be in New Zealand, but that was out of my control. I think we made all the right decisions with the information we had in hand. Every decision we made was a really good one for us."