How’s the broken thumb coming along?
It’s getting there. The cast is off. I had a scan. Probably looking at a mid-month return (May).
Were you happy with your early Super Rugby Pacific form in the five matches you played before the break?
The biggest thing I took out of it was just getting some good minutes and regular game time under the belt. In Japan two years ago, I had played five games and then Covid-19 hit the world. There was a six-month break, then I came back and played eight games. Obviously last year and the back-end of the tour, I just didn’t get a consistent run of games. So I was reasonably happy with my early Chiefs’ form. I’m the sort of person who just needs a consistent run of games under my belt to get back in the groove. The thumb injury was just really frustrating because I was five games in and starting to feel like I was starting to play some alright rugby. Then to be put out again was frustrating, to be fair.
This is the first time you’ve played Super Rugby since 2019. How much has it changed – it seems like you have to be more circumspect when you go into contact now with regular cards flying about?
Yeah, I think it’s always changing. It seems more stop-start the way it’s being refereed. It used to be that we got a lot more free-flowing games and long distance tries because fatigue sets in after a time. Teams hold the ball for long periods of time and defensive teams give away penalties. With the way the tackle is, people are trying to hold players up with the ball but if they are not doing it effectively, the opposition are getting a lot of momentum and then it’s hard to stop. On the weekend (against the Blues), we had opportunities to score but didn’t take them, whereas the Blues got the ball and that was it, really.
We’re seeing a lot of hookers scoring off lineout drives and it’s become a real weapon for the attacking team, so how do you as a lock legally and successfully defend a well-constructed lineout maul?
(Laughs). It seems to be getting harder, doesn’t it? I don’t think anyone really has the answer at the moment. Kurt Eklund scored three off the back of a maul the other week. They talked about stopping the lifters getting in front of the jumper to protect them to create a seam. They say you can’t swing up the side these days, they are swinging around the back and staying there. I’m not sure how effective it is as a player because you’re not using your momentum to push back. It’s probably an area that needs to be tidied up.
In 2020, there was a locking crisis at the Chiefs. Tupou Vaa’i was just a rookie who wasn’t an All Black, but he’s come on strong and so has Josh Lord, so it looks like some very solid locking depth now at the Chiefs?
Yeah, it’s kinda like when I first turned up at the Chiefs in 2012. Me and Mike FitzGerald came in, while Craig Clarke and Romana Graham were the older pair. They have the enthusiasm and want to push to start. It’s good for the team and anyone to have someone pushing you for a starting spot. It brings out the best in you.
Lord is just 21. Could you see him, if potentially you step away after 2023, being a long-term starting All Black from 2024, let alone at the Chiefs?
I think so. He’s got all the attributes. He’s taller than me and for a big man he’s fast, got all the skills. I know he went away after last year and tried to put a whole lot of bulk on. There’s no doubt that he and Tupou could have long careers ahead in the All Blacks jersey
It was a funny old season with the All Blacks, going on the longest continuous tour in 45 years. How tough was it mentally by the end of November after that long in a performance bubble?
It was tough. At the time you just got on and did it, because that’s what life was and that’s what we do as a living, play rugby. But it wasn’t until we came back and got out of MIQ that we realised it wasn’t a very nice way to live. I have a young family, so had to leave my daughters for 14 weeks.
Although the French and Irish played great rugby and outplayed us, on another day we’d be a lot better than what we showed at the end of that tour.
Do you feel it was a shame that those last two Tests were seen as a stain on what was a pretty good season overall?
I think so. It was disappointing. We won the Rugby Championship, though we lost the last game against South Africa. We wanted to go up to Europe to make a big statement but unfortunately people remember just the last two games of the year. We did the job in Australia but failed to kick on. So it was a tough summer. You dwell on it every couple of days. People come up to you on the street and want to talk about how well France did in the Six Nations. It’s good motivation and probably timely to sort out a couple of things for the next two years.
Did it give some of the All Blacks more resolve to play well in Super Rugby Pacific, which we have seen from the likes of Ardie Savea, Will Jordan, Sam Cane and Dalton Papali’i?
There’s no doubt it was a wake-up call for everybody. The responsibility is on the team and we need to be better. I guess you want to see players motivated and going well. That makes the competition exciting as well.
There’ll be some extra spice to that Ireland series in July…
I was talking to another journalist today. That always gets brought up, but it’s going to be a good one. They will come down at the back-end of their season for three games.
You haven’t worked under Warren Gatland or Clayton McMillan before this season, so how has that been for you under that duo?
It’s been awesome to come back into the Chiefs. Last year I watched them go outstandingly well and go all the way to the Super Rugby Aotearoa final. One of the reasons I went to Kobe Steelers in Japan was to freshen up and have some new voices, new coaches, different game plan. That was exciting. Warren has a wealth of knowledge and everyone knows his résumé. Clayton is a real people person and is highly motivated. They are working well together – I guess when Clayton first came in, it might have been hard for Gats, but it’s been awesome and I’m loving it.
Teams: All Blacks, NZ Under 20s, Chiefs,
Hawke’s Bay, Kobe Steelers (Japan),
Central (club), Christchurch BHS (First XV)
All Blacks number: 1110
All Blacks 2012-21: 92 Tests/6 tries
Chiefs 2012-22: 112 games/16 tries
First-class 2010-22 (NZ): 220 games/
Honours: 2015 RWC champion, 2011
JWC champion, 2014 IRB player of year,
2014 NZ Rugby player of year, 2012-13
Super Rugby champion, 2011 ITM Cup
*Stats correct to April 28
I’m not sure whether you’re a stats man, but you’re on 92 Tests, so if you hit the ton as just the second All Blacks lock, after Sam Whitelock, to achieve that milestone, how would that grab you?
I know how many caps I’m on but, to be honest, when I first made the All Blacks it was never a goal to reach 100 caps. Whatever I got to, I got to. But there’s no doubt, if I got there, it would be pretty awesome to say I have played 100 Test matches. Hopefully it can happen this year.
There’s still a few around from the class of 2012: you, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Sam Cane and Dane Coles.
It’s pretty cool. Me, Beaudy and Sam played Under 20s as well. Nuggy debuted on the same night as me. It’s nice to have guys who you have played a lot of rugby with. They’ve become great friends as well
Those two seasons in Japan seemed like just the ticket for your rugby and your body. Most guys take a one-season sabbatical in Japan, but you had two. Right move for your career?
Yep. It was. It got to the point where I needed change. I had a lot of little niggly injuries before I went away. I thought it would be a good time to refresh mentally and physically. My plan was to go hard these next two years and try and make it to a third Rugby World Cup. I definitely don’t regret the decision.
If you had not headed to Japan but continued playing Super Rugby, do you feel you would have been in a much different place now, 17 months out from a World Cup?
It’s hard to say. I’m only going off how the rugby has been the last two and half years with Kiwi Super sides playing each other, plus All Blacks Test matches. So I’m picking I wouldn’t be in as good a place as I am now. But I do feel more energised now.
Aaron Smith is on a minutes plan in his contract with the Highlanders to help him get through to the World Cup. Do you have a similar plan, because I know you won’t be holding back on the field?
I don’t have any plan around minutes, as such. I enjoy regular game time and will try and play as many minutes as I can. Obviously, I’ll have to balance that in Super Rugby and there are weeks off for the All Blacks. I’m hungry to play and get some rhythm going.
I know Alun Wyn Jones is on a plan with Wales to nurse him through to the World Cup, but you won’t change how you play the game, you’ll go hard in every game until the last one?
Yep, I just want to get stuck in. This thumb is a minor injury, so I’m chomping at the bit to get back to the Chiefs and work with these young locks. I’m loving the vibe there.
Your contract is up at the end of the World Cup? Have you made a call in your own mind as to whether that will be it or you might head overseas again?
I’ll probably weigh that up at the end of this year. But in all honesty I’m not going to be around for another four years through to another World Cup. I’m happy with what I’ve contributed. I have a family to think about. You never know what’s going to happen but I’m probably approaching these next two years as my last.
Anything you are interested in getting your teeth into for life after rugby?
The plan is to be a barista. I’ve been doing a bit towards it. Keen to open my own coffee shop back down in Napier. My wife is looking to finish her degree after looking after the kids while I do my thing. It might be time for me to do a few school runs and be a stay-at-home Dad/barista.
So are you the go-to man at the Chiefs and All Blacks for coffees?
I try my best. At the Chiefs, some of the boys and I try and do the best latte art! I’ve got my machine and it’s something I enjoy.
There are plenty of sceptics out there, but are you confident the All Blacks can get it right to contend at the World Cup?
Definitely. Building momentum into a World Cup is massive. You cannot write anyone off at the moment. There are a few things to tidy up but we’ve got two international windows to get it right. There’s no doubt in mind that we have the players and talent to do it.
Your old mate Sam Whitelock also took a sabbatical in Japan, but it would be nice to think you and him could still be in the No 4 and 5 jerseys next year when it counts?
Yeah, he’s been around a long time and has a lot of experience in big games. You know what you’re going to get. He’s very smart with a big work-rate. He can be there again.