'All I ever wanted to do was be an All Black. And then it all gets taken away'
There were more than 36,000 souls teeming inside Suncorp Stadium on 13 May 2012, but slumped deep in the innards of the ground, Richard Kahui had never felt more alone.
The stadium shook and throbbed all around him in great percussive belches. Out on the paddock, the reigning Super Rugby champion Reds and Kahui’s title-chasing Chiefs traded blows like two prize-fighters. The empty changing room, though, was desolate. Kahui clutched the wreckage of his left shoulder and wept for the career that was apparently being ripped from him.
This was the fifth time the joint had blown. Each trauma, every dislocation, meant six months to repair the damage and many more to rebuild shredded confidence and dormant skills. Just as Kahui hit his straps, the shoulder would pop, and the whole sorry cycle began again.
It was a hamster wheel of despair and right then, in the barren solitude of Brisbane, this mighty All Black wanted to get off.
“That was a moment where I felt like I was prepared to give it up,” Kahui tells RugbyPass. “I was sitting in the sheds, and I just remember crying thinking, I can’t take it. I can’t take the emotional stress and I can’t take the disappointment anymore.
“Throughout my time in New Zealand, I was never really able to play at my full potential because every time I got up and running, I got cut down again. I didn’t have any trust in my body or in the rehab I was doing.
“In 2012, I got injured halfway through the season when the Chiefs won the title. That really hurt me the most because I’d talked myself into believing I actually deserved to be an All Black, which I never really felt like I did until after the World Cup the previous year.
“To miss out on playing in the final for the Chiefs, that hurt. We worked so hard and created something really special there. You’re absolutely stoked, but the little gut-punch was that I wasn’t on the field and wasn’t really part of it.”
It is borderline miraculous that at 35, Kahui is sufficiently healthy and at ease with his body to be back in a Super Rugby midfield with the Western Force, but we’ll get to that. First, let’s remember how brilliant a player he had become a decade ago, how relentlessly unfortunate he was and how the constant torture drove him into very dark places.
“Now, I think the third time I injured the shoulder, which was 2010, I probably became a little bit depressed without any clinical diagnosis,” he says. “All I ever wanted to do was be an All Black. At three or four years old, I was doing the haka in front of the TV, and when I got there, that’s the happiest I’ve ever been. And then it all gets taken away – you don’t play, travel or train with the team.
“Less than 500m from my house there was a pub, and I went through a stage where I’d just sit drinking a jug of beer with the locals all day and play some pool and I lost a lot of motivation.
“I called Nigel Williams, a friend of mine, to come down one day, we were sitting there and he gave me the speech. ‘Mate, what’s going on? You doing alright? You need to sort yourself out.’ We sat there and nutted it out for a while and that changed the pathway I was on. I was going to a spot where it wasn’t going to be good for my rugby or for me as a person emotionally.”
How many players survive six serious shoulder injuries in rapid succession? How many touch greatness before being yanked immediately from the grandest stage? Kahui was 26 when he played his 17th and last All Blacks Test – the 2011 World Cup final. The tournament that sated New Zealand’s long thirst for glory ought to have been a springboard, not a brick wall.
As well as fine mates and doting family, Kahui had good people around him within the game and how he needed them. He feasted on the kindness of Wayne Smith, the great professor of All Blacks rugby, the team’s long-standing mental skills specialist, Gilbert Enoka, and colleague Dave Galbraith, who was cherished by the swashbuckling Japan team of the 2019 World Cup.
These men helped haul Kahui out of his malaise. They gave him techniques to combat the pain and he still employs them all these years later.
“The All Blacks use a red head and a blue head – the blue head is staying in the now, being positive, being task-focused,” he says. “Red head is the opposite; it’s worrying about the future and stressing about things you can’t control.
“Being blue, that’s something that I try to do every day at training to push myself to be the best I can. When I make mistakes, it’s about trying to get over them – how do I do the next task well?
“I won’t swear, but if you see what I mean, we called those ‘bucket’ moments. I had times where I’d get in a spiral of negativity and the ‘bucket’ philosophy changed how I was wired. It’s about being able to pull yourself back to being in the moment.
“Certain things help, some guys wiggle their toes in their boots or spray water. I give myself a hand-clap and for me that’s like a director’s cut: right, what’s next? Let’s focus on that. It sounds really basic but it is not that easy to do when you’re in a bit of a rut.”
'When you push for the All Blacks when you are in the maybe zone it’s very stressful. I know a lot of players feel that too'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 17, 2021
In the end, Kahui had to listen to his body. The shoulder collapsed for a sixth time in 2013 and enough was enough. He went to Japan, where the load is lighter, games fewer and rugby less emotionally draining. He gorged himself on the culture and majesty of the place, and seven years on, he would still be merrily trucking along for Toshiba Brave Lupus were it not for the scourge of Covid-19.
Japan gave his mind confidence and his body merciful respite. He owes these twilight cracks at Super Rugby to that happy spell.
Kahui calls himself the “old bull” of the Western Force. The boys in the squad have christened him koro – Maori for ‘grandfather’ – and he loves it. No longer does he fret when he stoops to level an opponent; no more does anxiety paralyse him when he feels the merest twinge in that blasted shoulder.
“My last one was in 2013 and it took me two years after that to fully not worry about it and think that every time it gets hurt, oh my god, it’s gone again,” Kahui says.
“Obviously I’ve aged and lost a little bit of speed and strength. Right now, I feel like I am in as good shape as I can be physically. I feel as good as I’ve ever felt. I’m hitting some really good numbers with the GPS and what I’m doing in the gym. It’s just making sure that I’m able to nail that rugby side and adjust from Japan to Super Rugby.
“What I love about the Force is that it feels like the Chiefs did when Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith came, the environment changed and I feel like this is a team that’s trying to grow something. I feel really privileged to be a part of that, not just as a player but in helping younger guys, the old bull being the link between coaches and some of the boys, taking everybody’s ideas and trying to mould and mash them together.”
The ambition in the franchise is clear. Kahui fetched up last year, when the Force was pitched into the hastily convened Super Rugby AU having been unceremoniously jettisoned from the main competition in 2017.
Since their reinstatement, they have tooled up in a serious way. Tevita Kuridrani, the Wallabies juggernaut, will be their devastating game-breaker. Rob Kearney arrived from Ireland several weeks ago, Tomas Cubelli has been plucked from the Jaguares and Wallabies prop Tom Robertson shifted across from the Waratahs. Former All Black enforcer Jeremy Thrush is entering his fourth season in Perth.
The operation is funded by the ferociously passionate mining magnate, Andrew Forrest, who has grand visions of what rugby can become. He is willing to invest and unafraid to ruffle feathers in the interests of his people, his sport and his home.
'I used to go in to training every Monday and make sure no-one was looking at the scales when I was weighing in'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 17, 2021
“Signing those world-class players shows how serious they are,” Kahui says. “They’ve put a lot of effort and time into the academy system here and you can see that in the boys coming to training every week, it’s incredible how they are growing just being in the environment.
“And the staff learned a lot from last season, Tim Sampson hadn’t been a head coach in Super Rugby before, and his assistants were the same. Everyone is better for the experience.
“We will celebrate when we get that first win, but we just need to back that up every week. Ultimately the message from Andrew Forrest is that we want to win Super Rugby, we don’t just want to be competitive. They want a title.”
Serenity in his body; a competitive drive in his soul. There is life in the old bull yet.
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