The Blues recently warmly welcomed its latest debutant in 20-year-old loose forward Sione Havili, Blues No 288. Joining in that greeting was Blues No 116, Jerome Kaino, who had a similar reception as a fresh-faced 20-year-old back in 2004.
In two weeks, Kaino will complete his 15-year journey with the Blues where – injury aside – he will leave as the club’s second most capped player.
So much along the way has been quintessential Blues – the boy who moved from Samoa to South Auckland as a child, switched to rugby at Papakura High School and polished that promise on the fields of St Kentigern College.
His climb to the top was meteoric – in one short year he rose to play for Auckland, the Blues, the Junior All Blacks and the All Blacks.
His exploits defy comprehension given the physical prowess he brought to the game and his influence over it. His longevity beggars belief given the nature of his game and the demands of his role.
Kaino equals Tony Woodcock’s mark of 137 caps for the Blues in his last game on his beloved Eden Park against the Reds, the team that he made his Super Rugby debut 15 years ago.
“I was young for sure but there was only a few of us and there were a lot of old heads around to learn from and we were very much in a learning mode,” Jerome said.
“I think the biggest change I have seen in the sport is the age of the players. They are younger and younger – but they are bigger and stronger and more intelligent as rugby players. That is a testament to the coaching they receive in the school system and in academies.
“Just look at the likes of Rieko (Ioane) and Damien (McKenzie). They are really young guys who are not on the bench but are world leading players and that is so good to see.”
In Kaino’s remarkable debut year, he was selected for the Blues, playing six times in Super Rugby. He was voted the Player of the Tournament at the Under-21 World Championship and was one of only three players to play every game for Auckland in the 2004 NPC. His performances led to selection for the All Blacks, where he scored a try on debut against the Barbarians at Twickenham. Kaino was named as the New Zealand Age Player of the Year and the IRB Under-21 Player of the Year.
After missing much of the 2006 season with injury, he returned to be the only New Zealand forward to play every minute of the 2007 Super Rugby round-robin on his way to becoming an All Black Test regular from 2008.
In 2011 he played every minute of the All Blacks’ campaign – aside from the final minute of the semi-final win over Australia – on their way to the Rugby World Championship win at home. His performances led to him being voted the outstanding player of the tournament and later earned the Kel Tremain Trophy as the New Zealand player of the year.
After returning from a year away playing in Japan, Kaino produced a barn-storming 2014 Super Rugby season and the following year went on to earn his 100thcap for the Blues.
His outstanding form led to his re-selection for the All Blacks where he played in all seven of their Rugby World Cup games, and one of their most influential players in their repeat victory.
“For me to play so long has been around my love of the game. I have loved every moment, to do what I love. I’ve not always been the ultimate professional in terms of stretching and yoga and the like, but to be a professional rugby player is the ultimate for me and I just love getting out there to play.”
Kaino has continued to play an influential role with the Blues despite battling injuries, always giving of his best regardless of the challenges the club has faced on the field.
“My advice to young players is take your talent and work hard. Don’t expect that your talent alone will get you through because it won’t. There are so many young players coming through with talent and not all will make it. So, give it everything you have and do not leave any stone unturned if you get your chance.”
His approach to the game epitomises what it is to be a professional rugby player. It is no surprise his biography was entitled All or Nothing.