Newly-elected Pacific Rugby Player Welfare board member Jerome Kaino believes his presence will add weight to their fight against injustice and act as a catalyst in resolving long-standing issues over governance and equality within the game.
Kaino, a two-time World Cup winner with New Zealand but whose Samoan heritage still burns bright, has been joined by fellow All Blacks Ardie Savea and Ngani Laumape as PRPW, led by former Samoa Test star Dan Leo, continues its battle to be properly represented at World Rugby level and achieve financial parity for players from Tonga, Fiji and Samoa.
Now playing for Top 14 champions Toulouse, back-rower Kaino told The Rugby Paper: “Dan’s a great leader for PRPW and is a good person to learn from and follow. The main motivation for me and the other guys joining the board is achieving transparency in all aspects of our home unions in the Pacific Islands and the way Polynesian unions are running things.
“What we want is for guys to have a level playing field and if they want to play for their country, they should be allowed to do so without it being a hindrance to their career.
“It takes a lot of hard work for players to get to a position where they can play for their countries, so when they do get the honour of being selected they shouldn’t have to worry about it costing them a club contract or find themselves not being looked after properly by their unions, financially or in terms of facilities, because that’s like being kicked in the teeth.
“It’s a long journey to be able to challenge the governance of these unions but it’s a great movement to be involved in and to be able to help change things for future players is an honour.
“Not only are we challenging the unions back home, we also want to see Polynesian sides playing Tests in the UK or France to be looked after financially and not just be exploited. If they’re playing against the top nations and not being paid, that’s not right.”
Since moving to France in 2018, Kaino has also become increasingly aware of the pastoral importance of looking after younger Polynesian players, some of whom have suffered mental health issues which, in more extreme cases, have led to them taking their own lives.
Kaino explained: “Being based in France has made me realise the importance of providing a support network for guys who come from the Pacific Islands and are alone. What I can do is offer guys mental support so that they know there are others in their corner.
“During the Covid-19 lockdown there were quite a few guys who found themselves homesick and I’ve had a group in the south of France who I’ve been keeping in touch with.
“It’s not just in the Top 14 either, there are loads of guys in Pro D2 and the Federale leagues – many I played with or against back home – so I just wanted to lend my support and give them someone to talk to because in the past guys have run into problems.”
Kaino, meanwhile, has been keeping close tabs on events in New Zealand where Super Rugby Aotearoa has been attracting huge crowds, leading to proposals being tabled for a new trans-Tasman competition which may include Pacific Island representation.
“It’s definitely the way to go, I’d love to see a Pacific Islands team in there,” Kaino says.
“It’s been great to see the New Zealand teams go into battle in front of big crowds and the most positive thing is how much the public has got behind it. It would be great if they could expand it to include the Australians and Pacific Islanders.”
With former club Auckland Blues flying high, Kaino has been excited by the progress of 21-year-old No.8 sensation Hoskins Sotutu, the man he once mentored and who is being tipped for a big future with the All Blacks despite being qualified for Fiji and England.
Kaino said: “I knew from day one that Hoskins had the goods to go all the way – add Akira Ioane into that and those boys have more potential than any others that I’ve played with, from a raw gift perspective and having worked with them.
“Seeing the things that these youngsters can do is crazy. It just makes me think what heights they can take their games to but also how they can change our game as we know it.
“We’ve all seen what Akira can do and it’s absolutely crazy. Hoskins is cut from the same cloth, both these boys are dangerous, and I think they would complement Sam Cane and Ardie Savea really well in the black jersey.
“I think the future for New Zealand is really bright and it’s exciting to see the new crop coming through. I’ve known (new All Blacks head coach) Ian Foster for a long time and he’s got a fantastic rugby brain, so I’m sure they’ll do very well now.”
As for his own future, 37-year-old warrior Kaino confirms 2020/21 will be his last season as a player and he would love to sign off at Toulouse with Champions Cup success.
“I came to Toulouse at just the right time,” says the 2011 and 2015 World Cup winner. “They’d been building a good group of young players who happened to peak, and winning last year’s Championship was amazing.
“We’ve still got this year’s Heineken Cup to finish and it would be a dream to win it, but we’ve got a quarter-final against Ulster and there are some class outfits left in it.”
Kaino added: “I’ve got one more season and that will be it. I don’t see myself coaching, but I want to give something back to the game so I’d like to be involved in rugby somewhere.”