Richard Kahui had all but come to terms with the fact that he was never going to play Super Rugby again. While the coronavirus pandemic has scuppered many a plan, it’s now been the making of Kahui’s return to the competition he loves – albeit for a new team.

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The Western Force have signed the former All Black for Super Rugby AU, which is the Force’s first foray into Super Rugby since they were evicted from the competition at the end of 2017.

From the time the Force reached out to Kahui, who lives on the Gold Coast but typically spends the better part of the year in Japan representing the Toshiba Brave Lupus, it took just four days for the 2011 World Cup winner to sign on the dotted line. Had the Force not come calling, Kahui wouldn’t be playing any further professional rugby this year. In fact, he would have been playing a different sport altogether.

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“I actually haven’t been out of training too long – I was training to play Aussie rules, with the first game kicking off this weekend,” Kahui told RugbyPass.

“A friend of mine came to me and said, ‘What are you up to? Why don’t you come and kick a ball around?’ So I went down and just loved it. The team was really good to me, took me in and it was just a really good way of keeping fit without pounding the pavement on my own. I love team sports and I love being in a group and that team environment.”

The sport was originally an opportunity for Kahui to simply keep his body in check, with the next Top League season not due to kick off until January.

“I was just doing it for some fitness and to do something that wasn’t as contact heavy as rugby but still get a bit of contact in and a bit of running around. The more I did it to keep fit, I thought, ‘Well actually, this might be fun to play as well.’ Fortunately enough, the Force popped up and I’ll be playing footy instead.

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“There are some bullets flying in Aussie rules but if I did play seriously, I think I’d try and stay away from the argy-bargy because I’ve obviously still got to do a job for my club in Japan, Toshiba, and now, here with the Force.

“So I’m not totally out of shape – just in a slightly different shape than what you’d expect a rugby player to be in.”

A number of Australian and New Zealand players who now represent Japanese clubs are back in their home countries while the coronavirus pandemic rages on.  The Top League was called off in March, which means that many professional sportsman have been left without any professional sports to play – but few have signed up with Super Rugby clubs due to the potential risks that are involved.

“Toshiba’s been an outstanding club to me, they’ve always treated me well, whether it’s time to get home to see my family or whatever – they were really accommodating for this and I’m really thankful for that,” Kahui said. “I do appreciate the ability to come out and do this and I think they see the value of it as well.

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“I’m coming back playing Super Rugby, I get to keep the wheels ticking over during our off-season in Japan and hopefully I can take a little bit more experience of something different back to Japan.

“I’ve had four months off so far and I’m not scheduled to play in Japan until January while this is going to finish probably in September. It’s still a long amount of time if I pick up any niggles or anything to sort them out and be back ready to fire for Toshiba. I think, all-round, it’s a win-win.”

The 35-year-old played 60 games of Super Rugby for the Chiefs and 18 tests for New Zealand. He joins fellow former All Black Jeremy Thrush in a squad which has recruited well since being invited to play in Super Rugby AU. Former Wallabies Kyle Godwin, Nick Frisby, Pek Cowan and Greg Holmes have all joined the Force’s ranks to add some much-needed experience to a side boasting plenty of promising Australian talent.

“There are quite a lot of young guys in this team that have played Rapid Rugby and age-group rugby here in Australia but haven’t played any Super,” Kahui said. “So it’s quite a cool group because everyone’s really eager to learn and everyone’s really excited.

“I noticed that, when I came into the group, everyone was fizzing to be back in Super Rugby and to have that opportunity. I remember what it was like as a young guy myself, being asked to play Super Rugby and just how inspiring it is and how it makes you feel to be out there, playing a competition that is one of the best in the world. So it’s really nice to be around that energy again and it’s sort of rubbing off on me and I’m starting to feel a little bit younger than I am.”

The Force rushed many of their recent recruits into the match-day 23 for their first game of the competition, a 23-14 loss to the Waratahs last weekend. Kahui, despite only recently joining the squad, could be on the park shortly too.

“I was hoping to get out this week but I’m not sure if that’ll be the case,” said Kahui. “The coaches have got a plan for me – just easing me back into contact and things because they don’t want to just throw me in and have me break. I think next week would be the latest but I’m still a chance for this week.”

You can bet that a fair few more Kiwi fans will be tuning into Super Rugby AU as soon as Kahui makes a return, just to catch sight of the man who dominated attackers with his crushing tackles when he was playing for Waikato, the Chiefs and the All Blacks.

“I’m still sort of getting over the fact that I’m back playing Super Rugby and all the pressures and stuff that goes with that,” Kahui said. “The thing that I’m most excited about is just playing footy in a competition that I just really love.

“It’s a real shame that obviously we don’t have the trans-Tasman Super Rugby at the moment; it’d be great to play against the Chiefs or something like but maybe that’ll happen in seasons to come, who knows.

“It’s just a really great opportunity for me – not one that I thought I’d be back doing, playing Super rugby again. It’s something that I thought I left behind when I left the shores of Aotearoa but here I am, playing in Australia.”

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