NZ Rugby World
THE SEARCH FOR MOBY DICK
REPLACING THE WORLD CLASS JEROME KAINO IN THE ALL BLACKS NO 6 SHIRT HAS BEEN THE NEAR IMPOSSIBLE CHALLENGE. BUT MIGHT THE ANSWER HAVE PRESENTED ITSELF DURING SUPER RUGBY?
It's maybe a good job Steve Hansen retired as All Blacks coach when he did, or he may have become a little like Captain Ahab endlessly and hopelessly chasing Moby Dick.
The white whale in Hansen's case being a bruising, intimidating blindside flanker – a new Jerome Kaino.
Hansen achieved plenty as All Blacks coach, almost did the impossible in some regards. He won a World Cup, he won the Rugby Championship six times, presided over a perfect season in 2013 and masterminded a world record run of 18 consecutive victories.
Hansen also found a successor to Richie McCaw both as captain, but more significantly he developed Sam Cane into a world class openside so he could take over the No 7 jersey in 2016 and make an immediate impact.
There was the small miracle he worked of inheriting just one test ready first-five in 2012, Daniel Carter, and then reaching the 2015 World Cup with six and never letting his stocks of genuinely capable No 10s drop below three.
But the one thing that alluded him was a replacement for Kaino. He couldn't find one and like Captain Ahab, he certainly tried.
He roamed the country in his quest and several times thought he'd harpooned his target only to find he hadn't.
The list of unsuccessful candidates proved long in the end. Between 2012 and 2019 Hansen tried 10 players at blindside in the hope one of them would establish themselves as the long-term successor to Kaino.
Some impressed, plenty didn't and it proved a long and frustrating battle especially as injury and then a Japanese sabbatical saw Kaino miss all of 2012 and 2013, before injury and personal issues curtailed his involvement in 2017 which led to him leaving New Zealand in
That meant there was time and opportunity to breed and groom the next generation of blindsides, but it didn't happen.
The two who came closest to being long-term options were Steven Luatua and Liam Squire. Vaea Fifita had one extraordinary performance in 2017 that generated some excitement he might be the one, but he faded alarmingly quickly and never again reproduced the sort of rugby he did against Argentina in New Plymouth.
Luatua was arguably the most frustrating as his talent and potential were obvious. At 1.96m and 113kg he had the size and presence the All Blacks wanted. He could win lineout ball, move bodies and even fill in at lock if needs be.
But what everyone liked was that he wasn't just big – he was mobile and athletic with it and a natural ball player. He was the most similar athlete to Kaino that the All Blacks found and he also shared another common trait with his Blues mentor.
Luatua lacked off-field discipline in his early days. This had been Kaino's barrier too when he first started out and after enjoying a good, if not overwhelmingly impressive rookie test season in 2013, Luatua fell away hard and fast in 2014.
He wasn't making the starting team for the Blues and when the All Blacks held a training camp in May that year, the reason for Luatua's lack of form was made clear by Hansen.
The All Blacks were in Christchurch to plan for the year ahead, to get a feel for how the coaches wanted them to play. But Luatua found out he was there to be run into the ground.
Hansen didn't think the big loose forward was fit enough and so Luatua spent a few hours with conditioning coach Nic Gill being put through the most exhausting drills.
“Steven's problem is that he's probably been a bit lax on the aerobic side of his game, so hence he's not doing enough when he's out on the park,” Hansen told media afterwards.
“He'll do something and then go missing for five or six minutes. You want your players to be doing repeated efforts and he's just not doing that at the moment so we had a bit of a chat about that and put something in place during the camp to feel what it was like to be able to hurt and still deliver what he needs to deliver on.”
It felt a bit harsh, cruel even to expose Luatua like that but Hansen's actions were driven by his conviction that he had a young man with extraordinary talent who needed the proverbial kick up the backside.
It was tough love but the point was Hansen felt that Luatua was worth the investment and while it took a bit of time, it did eventually pay dividend.
By the end of 2016 Luatua was back with the All Blacks and was picked to play against Italy in Rome, with Hansen saying this: “My big encouragement is for Steven to be really physical. Steven has had numerous opportunities, and probably the reason I am saying we need him to be physical is because that is probably one thing that is missing in his game.
“He is a very good athlete, but that real physical quality - that is what we are looking for. Another Jerome Kaino. Steven has to show he is the man.”
For 65 minutes, before cramp hit hard, Luatua played the physical role the All Blacks wanted and when he then upped his intensity and effort throughout Super Rugby in 2017, Hansen had his man.
Except of course Luatua shocked everyone by deciding to sign with Bristol and abandon his test career just as it was about to get properly started.
It was annoying rather than disastrous that Luatua quit after all that development and investment time, because Liam Squire had come up fast on the rails in 2016.
And like Luatua, he also advanced his cause in Super Rugby 2017 to the extent that Hansen made a surprise selection for the first Bledisloe Cup test that year.
He dropped Kaino for Squire and it was a decision made on form. Squire had that hard edge the All Blacks needed. He was mobile and athletic, but more importantly Squire was tough and had that mental hardness that all great blindsides need.
Squire had the desire and physical attributes to dominate people in the collision. His tackling throughout 2016 had been destructive and his ball carrying effective.
He was also quick, fast enough certainly to hurt defences with his pace and he won Hansen's attention and respect.
By the end of 2017 it looked a done deal, Hansen had his new Kaino. But by the end of 2018, the picture was scrambled again as Squire had been battered to bits.
He was barely getting through games and all that physical toll caused him considerable mental anguish. When he finally got his body right to play the last few rounds of Super Rugby in 2019, he realised he wasn't mentally ready to commit to test football and told Hansen he was unavailable for selection.
“After what's been a really tough year for me mentally and physically, and after speaking with people I trust on whether I should make myself available again for the All Blacks, I felt I wasn't ready just yet physically or mentally for the pressures of test match rugby,” Squire said.
No Squire meant the All Blacks went for a twin openside plan at the World Cup, using Cane in tandem with Ardie Savea.
They also made the ill-fated mistake of starting Scott Barrett at No 6 in the semi-final against England, a selection that backfired and would never have been made had they gone to Japan with their new Kaino.