Top 14 Final: Last Hurrah for Toulouse captain Kaino
TOP14 FINAL: All Black legend Jerome Kaino will make his final bow from professional rugby union when he leads Toulouse against La Rochelle in the final of the French Top 14.
In a replay of the European Champions Cup final, which Toulouse won 22-17 for a record fifth continental title, Kaino will again be key, an uncompromising backrower instrumental in New Zealand winning back-to-back Rugby World Cups in 2011 and 2015.
In an interview with AFP, the 38-year-old, born in American Samoa before relocating to New Zealand with his family at the age of four, said that the nerve-racking 8-7 World Cup final victory over France in 2011 was the stand-out moment of his trophy-laden career.
“In the All Black jersey, that was an amazing feeling to do that in front of my family, at home, on my home field of Eden Park,” Kaino said.
“That was an amazing feeling to win that final. That was a really really close game as well. This final would stand out.
“I was really excited to be in the tournament, amongst the All Blacks, to be playing the world’s best. And the tournament just seemed to bring the best out of me.”
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Despite being a US passport holder, Kaino insisted that putting on the All Blacks jersey had been a dream come true.
“When you grow up in New Zealand, it’s every young kid’s dream to play for the All Blacks. It’s the number one sport,” he said.
Naming Eden Park as his favourite stadium, Kaino added former hooker Keven Mealamu, capped 132 times by New Zealand, as his stand-out teammate.
“He is a really good man, good teacher, good leader. I’ve always enjoyed playing alongside him,” he said.
Among Kaino’s own 83 appearances for New Zealand – 78 coming as a starter predominantly at blindside flanker – many came against Australia and South Africa in the Rugby Championship.
He lost only 11 of his 81 Tests (with two drawn) and singled out battle-hardened Springbok flank Schalk Burger as his toughest opponent.
“We played so many games against each other,” Kaino told AFP. “Every time we were facing each other, there was always that respect there.
“After we smashed each other on the field, we would always have a beer, a good discussion after the game.”
The All Blacks describe Kaino as “one of the most devastating loose forwards in world rugby, with his tenacious defence and slick ball-handling skills earning him many Test caps. He is considered one of the game’s great blindside flanks”.
Wherever he has played, no matter under which coach, Kaino’s quality has shone through.
He lists All Blacks coaches Steve Hansen and Graham Henry, their assistants Wayne Smith and Mike Cron, and current Bristol coach and his former Blues coach Pat Lam as the mentors who have had most impact on him.
“They were not just great coaches, but great men as well and they taught me a lot throughout my career. Awesome people,” he said.
Insisting he has no regrets over his long rugby career, Kaino’s move to Toulouse in 2018 was another fortuitous decision.
There was no hint of the foreign player in his mid-30s arriving to sit back and take the easy French euro.
Kaino soon established himself, as he has done in any other team in which he has played, as a key cog. He was quickly installed as captain and skippered Toulouse to the domestic league success two years ago.
Friday’s final will be his 62nd game in Toulouse colours in three seasons, showing he has been a fine investment for the French giants and testament to the durability of a player pushing 40 in the hard world of Top 14.
With retirement beckoning, Kaino has said he would like to become a member of the Toulouse off-field staff.
It is an attractive proposition for a team boasting exciting France half-backs Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack and fleet-footed Springbok winger Cheslin Kolbe in their glittering ranks.
But for one last time on Friday, Kaino will tighten his studs and pitch himself against La Rochelle’s Victor Vito, himself a member of the two All Blacks World Cup-winning teams, when the final kicks off at the Stade de France at 1845 GMT.