No one, least of all the man himself, believed that Richard Kahui would be playing Super Rugby in 2020. Most people with even the faintest knowledge of his earlier career, wouldn’t have imagined he would still be playing any kind of rugby at all in 2020.
And yet, against seemingly impossible odds, Kahui is not only still grinding out a living as a professional, he’s doing it in the cut and thrust of Super Rugby.
He’s about as surprised as everyone else to currently find himself, having just turned 35, to be part of the Western Force’s squad. Super Rugby was not on his agenda this year and hadn’t been since he left the Chiefs in 2013.
That he’s still playing is vindication of the life-changing decision he made seven years ago to leave New Zealand. But it is also, simultaneously, a sad reminder that he is one of the game’s great unfulfilled talents and that there’s an alternative universe where Kahui and not Conrad Smith established himself as the great All Blacks centre of the professional age.
Forgotten now in the mists of time, or perhaps never realised at all by those not around in the early days of Kahui’s career, is that he was destined for stardom in a way Smith never was.
Even at 19, he was a seek and destroy defender whether he played on the wing or in his preferred midfield role and a fearless runner with an incredible knack to delay his surge on to the ball and then use his power and pace to bust through the half hole his deception had created.
And while power was at the heart of his game, he was a clever distributor and supremely confident under the high ball when was positioned in the backfield.
The All Blacks, having seen him help Waikato win the 2006 provincial championship, wanted to take him to the World Cup in 2007, but the first of his endless injuries stymied that.
When Kahui did make his test debut the following year, he scored against England with his first touch and the coaches alternated him and Smith at centre for most of the year.
The coaching trio of Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, never quite settled on which of the two they preferred but were thinking that by 2009, Kahui would have made an irresistible claim to be their preferred choice.
But two shoulder reconstructions saw Kahui miss all of the test programme in 2009 and play just three in 2010, meaning Smith won the All Blacks No 13 jersey by default, becoming Ma’a Nonu’s midfield partner.
By the time Kahui had recovered in 2011 his preferred role had gone, but he was held in such high regard, was so respected by the coaches, that they picked him on the wing throughout the World Cup.
It would almost certainly have become his permanent home in the All Blacks, but for the fact he dislocated his shoulder again in May 2012 and for good measure, did the other one in February 2013.
In a six-year stretch he needed five separate shoulder reconstructions, which is why when Toshiba made him an incredible offer in early 2013, he took it.
Leaving his home club seven years ago broke his heart, but it was a move he felt he had to make.
He was 27 and so broken mentally and emotionally that he couldn’t commit to extending his stay in New Zealand. He would have loved to have tried to add to his tally of 17 test caps, to have been an active part of Dave Rennie’s title-winning Chiefs and to have been in the frame to play at a second World Cup in 2015 having been such a crucial part of the 2011 campaign.
But he feared that it would destroy him and he made a painful, but ultimately brave choice to forfeit his test aspirations and instead make his priority extending his career and trying to set up his young family.
“If I had stayed in New Zealand I somehow doubt I would still be playing now,” Kahui says. “Going away gave us an opportunity to set up the rest of our lives. Japan gave me time to rest and recover. Not that I played long seasons in New Zealand because I was always injured, but we have had years in Japan where we have had seven games in a season and then four or five months off. “The rigours of international rugby and Super Rugby are such, that I am not sure that I would have coped.”
What he’s more certain about is that if he could have his time again, he would have handled his exit differently. He has no regrets about the decision he made, but the process didn’t cast him in the most favourable light with the All Blacks coaches who publicly chastised him for not talking to them before he signed with Toshiba.
The New Zealand Herald broke the story he was leaving and it was the first head coach Hansen knew of Kahui’s plans.
“If I had stayed in New Zealand I somehow doubt I would still be playing now.”
“That last time the injury happened at training and I drove home and parked my car outside my house,” says Kahui. “It was pouring rain and I was pretty upset and I got on the phone to my manager and I said, ‘Kent can you get me out of here?’. It happened pretty quickly.
“My position was untenable because I just wasn’t up to it. I made the decision and within a week Toshiba flew me over and then there was an offer in front of me pretty much as soon as I got home from Japan.
“I know now I should have rung New Zealand Rugby and said this is what I am thinking. I was just caught up in what was happening. I know that Shag [Hansen] and Fozzie [All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster] were disappointed that they didn’t have the chance to talk to me about it.
“I didn’t think about it and from a personal point of view it was disappointing that they felt let down. I understand that, and I am disappointed by that. If I could do that bit again I would have done it differently but the outcome would have been the same.”
Even now, it’s easy to deduce that Kahui’s lack of confidence in himself was one of the key reasons he didn’t feel the need to discuss his intentions with the All Blacks coaches. He never for a second imagined that he was the sort of player they were desperate to keep, for he never felt that he deserved to be an All Black.
Despite his obvious world class potential, the fast-rise into the squad and close-run battle with Smith to be selected each test, Kahui felt like an imposter.
“I never felt I was good enough to be an All Black,” he says. “I made my debut in 2008 and I thought I was playing half decent footy at that point. But I spent so much time in and out of the team injured, I never really felt that I belonged there.
“I never felt that I had earned the right to be there. I never really felt I deserved to be there and when they said they wanted to keep me, I probably didn’t believe them. It was hard to get it into my heart of hearts that I was good enough to be there.”
There is a precise moment in time that Kahui realised his All Blacks aspirations were over. It wasn’t when he left for Japan in 2013 as there was still in his mind a faint possibility he’d return to New Zealand at the end of his two-season contract, refreshed and rebuilt, ready to give Super Rugby another go.
He had kept in touch with Wayne Smith throughout his career. The two were close, Smith having left his position with the All Blacks after the 2011 World Cup to work with the Chiefs, before returning to the national team again in 2015.
In mid 2014, Smith rang Kahui to sound him out about a return to the Chiefs. “Initially, watching every All Blacks test hurt,” says Kahui. “It really hurt. I never had the desire to leave New Zealand. I was living my dream. We had created something special at the Chiefs. The All Blacks was special and I loved every single moment I was there.
“The hardest part was talking to Smithy about leaving for Japan. I told him I just wanted to go and get my body right, my shoulders right. I told him that if I felt up to it I’ll want to come back.
“My position was untenable because I just wasn’t up to it.”
“But I can remember sitting in my apartment in Japan and Smithy rang to talk to me about coming back to New Zealand. Coming back to the Chiefs and having a crack at the All Blacks. But I didn’t think my body was right and I felt I was still hiding my shoulder when I was paying and you just can’t play international rugby and get away with that.
“That phone call in particular was the hardest part because that is when I officially gave up on my dream. I don’t regret the decisions I have made but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
The sacrifice has been significant, but it has brought Kahui the reward he really wanted which was longevity.
Born and raised in Tokoroa, the same small Waikato town that was home for former Wallaby Quade Cooper, Kahui, his wife and three children are now based in Queensland, set up for life just about with opportunities they never would have had without his long stint in Japan.
He’s managed eight seasons in Japan, or seven-and a-half as this year’s Top League was abandoned in April when the Coronavirus hit and that was what opened the door to a return to Super Rugby.
“They [Toshiba] gave us the option to come home and not get paid,” says Kahui. “I came home and was on holiday. I had literally done nothing for about four months and was just about to start my preparation to head back to Japan in November.
“I got a phone call when I was out camping in Warwick in Queensland and it was the Force management asking whether I would be interested to play for them.
“I was home, had nothing to do and not being sure I would be able to go back to Japan because of Coronavirus. The biggest part for me was putting myself back out there. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be good enough.
“I think about all the high quality players in Super Rugby, especially in New Zealand and I didn’t put Super Rugby on a pedestal, but I probably didn’t give Japanese rugby enough credit. Coming back here I expected it to be super physical and super fast but in actual fact, the level of rugby in the Top League in Japan is probably on a par if not slightly better than here at the moment at Super Rugby level.
“That’s because of the quality of foreign players they have in Japan. So I had my doubts about being able to hold my end up, but it’s all stuff that you don’t know until you try. I’m stoked with the decision I made. It has given me a real fresh feel for rugby again.”
Kahui isn’t sure now what his future entails now that his journey with Toshiba has come to an end but the former All Black is open to offers.
“I think if there has been a positive to being injured so much earlier in my carer, it is that I feel great,” he says. “I am really fit. I am about as strong as I was when I started and as long as my ability to contribute is still valued by the team and I can still see that I can help more than I can hurt, then I will keep playing.
“I will definitely do one more year and then I think I will just go year by year. I feel great and I am loving rugby and being back in the Super Rugby environment has changed how I feel about the game and I want to keep challenging myself again.”