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FEATURE Has Jerome Kaino's All Blacks heir-apparent emerged just to say goodbye?

Has Jerome Kaino's All Blacks heir-apparent emerged just to say goodbye?
10 months ago

The irony has not been lost on the All Blacks that they have at last found the blindside flanker they have been searching for just months after the man in question, Shannon Frizell, announced he would be spending next season in Japan.

Whether Frizell intends to return to New Zealand after playing for Toshiba Brave Lupus is not known, but New Zealand Rugby will certainly be keen to see if they can persuade him to do just that after the bruising Tongan has found a new lease of life in 2023.

Given he’s only 29, NZR will refuse to believe that this year will be the last time they will see Frizell in a black jersey.

The national body will be hoping, and certainly doing what it can to persuade Frizell, that after he’s banked the likely $1.2m he’ll earn in Japan in 2024, that he can come back to New Zealand, richer and still capable of playing the quality of Test rugby he currently is.

What will be encouraging NZR to think like that is that Frizell’s journey to this point is remarkably similar to that of the last great blindside flanker New Zealand had in its midst – Jerome Kaino.

Kaino Hawaii MLR All Blacks
The All Blacks have struggled to replace Jerome Kaino since he departed New Zealand’s shores in 2017. (Photo by Michael Bradley/AFP via Getty Images)

Like Kaino (American Samoa), Frizell was not born in New Zealand. He grew up in Tonga, and was heading towards a career in football, having played for the national team as a goalkeeper when he was just 17.

But Tonga were fairly awful at football and Frizell got sick of picking the ball out of the back of the net and so he switched to playing rugby, which felt more his cup of tea.

At 1.94m and 113kg his build and athleticism were better suited to the oval ball game and so too was his mentality.

Frizell was a natural bruiser. He loved the collisions of rugby and so, after he tried and failed to gain a visa to live with his older brother Tyson, an NRL player in Australia, Frizell made his way to New Zealand where he was spotted by the Tasman Makos and then the Highlanders.

He made his Super Rugby debut in 2018 and while he only played six games, he did enough in those appearances to convince then All Blacks coach Steve Hansen that he was ready to play Test football.

Frizell didn’t make an emphatic statement on his debut, but he did enough to suggest there was something there

Hansen was in the market for a No 6 because the long-serving Kaino had faded a little in the first part of 2017, and then wasn’t seen in the second half of the year after he encountered a personal issue.

The All Blacks were grooming Frizell’s Highlanders team-mate Liam Squire as their replacement for Kaino, but he was proving injury-prone, and Hansen wanted to build his options to cover for that.

Frizell made his debut in the third and final Test of the June series against France, with Hansen saying: “We like to take our time with some of them and he [Frizell] is probably one of the guys we were taking a bit of time with. But, having said that, we are pretty excited about him getting the opportunity.

“He is a great athlete. He has proven over the last three weeks is certainly good enough to be in this class and group of people.”

Frizell didn’t make an emphatic statement on his debut, but he did enough to suggest there was something there: something worth sticking with, which Hansen did, giving Frizell a handful more caps off the bench and another start against Argentina.

Shannon Frizell packs down for his New Zealand Test debut in a match between the All Blacks and France at Forsyth Barr Stadium on June 23, 2018 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

But there was no wow factor as such. His work was competent, but Frizell never produced the sizzling dynamism, or crunch that Hansen had hoped for and he slowly faded out of the squad.

And this is where things were again similar to the fate of Kaino, who was plucked from relative obscurity to make his Test debut, with the coaches of that time talking up his athleticism and readiness to play at that level.

There was no initial wow factor from Kaino either. He was dropped after playing his first two tests in 2006 and didn’t make it back to the All Blacks until 2008. And even then, it took until 2010 for Kaino to deliver on his potential.

Frizell flattered to deceive in much the same way, bobbing around on the fringes of the squad between 2019 and 2022, without ever giving definitive proof that he was the answer to the issues the All Blacks had at No 6.

Since 2020, Frizell, Akira Ioane, Scott Barrett and Ethan Blackadder have all been vying to establish themselves in the role, with none ever quite managing to do so.

It was [Frizell’s] performance against South Africa that signaled he has at last come of age

Until now that is, because just like Kaino, Frizell has suddenly clicked and found a new gear. He was given the start against Argentina in the opening Rugby Championship Test and played well; He carried hard and tackled harder.

But it was his performance against South Africa that signaled he has at last come of age because he was the undisputed toughest forward on the field – and that includes the South Africans.

Frizell used his brilliant footwork to beat defenders and attack weak shoulders. Every time he carried he made metres. His work rate was through the roof, too, and he was on hand to carry close to the ruck and then on the wing, where he scored a memorable try bumping off Springboks fullback Willie le Roux.

He also won turnover ball, made solid tackles and had the sort of presence that let the South Africans know they couldn’t bully the All Blacks. He looked every inch like Kaino at his best, prompting All Blacks coach Ian Foster to say: “He’s been simmering along all Super season.

“We’ve always had a lot of faith in Shannon. When he’s put a black jersey on, he’s always played well. Sometimes players take a while to get that 100 per cent belief at Test level. Perhaps he’s been one of those, I don’t know.

Shannon Frizell of New Zealand runs the ball during the Rugby Championship test match between New Zealand and South Africa played at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland on July 15, 2023. (Photo by MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP via Getty Images)


“We’ve got his roles a bit clearer. He deserves the credit. We’ve been really clear about the opportunity that’s there for him, and he’s taken it. Sometimes it’s a bit of selection pressure, experience, and he’s playing like a man who really wants it.

“Putting it together in a complete package is probably what we saw. He stayed focused. You saw him double up tasks. There was a variety to his game that was pretty special.”

And the fact that Frizell has finally come good, paid out on his potential just months after he made his mind up to play next season in Japan, is yet one more similarity he has with Kaino.

It was in 2011 when Kaino delivered the best season of his career. He was the All Blacks best player during the tournament – and that’s a team that included Richie McCaw, Dan Cater, Kieran Read, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith – and played every minute of every game.

It’s debatable whether the All Blacks would have won that tournament without him delivering his brand of muscularity and he was short-listed as a World Player of the Year – and probably should have won.

The certainty of where his career was heading gave [Kaino] a new lease of life, a sense of freedom or perhaps it was obligation to end things on the right note.

There were many reasons why Kaino delivered in that tournament, one of which is that he had all but made his mind up that he would be heading to Japan after it.

He didn’t announce his intentions until April 2012, but Kaino had a strong inkling he was going to play two club seasons for Toyota Verblitz while he was rampaging through the 2011 tournament.

The certainty of where his career was heading gave him a new lease of life, a sense of freedom or perhaps it was obligation to end things on the right note.

The same appears to be happening with Frizell, who has been a different beast since he revealed he was off to Japan in 2024.

What may also have helped is that he was roped into a stint at lock with the Highlanders earlier this year when they were struck by an injury crisis.

Shannon Frizell spent time in the second row for the Highlanders during the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

It seemed to be the making of Frizell – he relished the new running lines in the middle of the field and crunching into bigger men in a head-on capacity.

So too did he take to the different cleanout role he was assigned and perhaps what happened is that playing lock enabled Frizell to realise that he has the raw power, size and necessary mindset to dominate bigger men.

And now, the only question left is whether his career will draw yet one more parallel with Kaino’s, by him returning to New Zealand after his stint in Japan.

This is precisely what Kaino did. He left for two seasons, and against all the odds, he not only came back – which involved him having to accept a $1m a year pay cut – but so too did he manage to return to the form he had showed before he left.

Kaino was every bit as good at the 2015 World Cup as he had been at the 2011 tournament, and to this day he remains the only forward in New Zealand who has been able to have a mid-career sojourn and resume his Test career after his overseas stint.

Frizell might become the second, but before then, New Zealand will just be hoping he can produce the same sort of impact at the 2023 World Cup as Kaino did in 2011.


Robert 332 days ago

This last test. Frizzel really played so well that I thought he was our next Kaino.

Andrew 332 days ago

Jacobson has a similar history...and is now showing decent form. Will he get the same attention? Also fir 2024 and beyond....doesnt seem to have the same propensity for injury that his more prominent Crusaders rival has.

Tristan 333 days ago

I can see Blackadder being the longer term blindside. He has the mental ability to deliver every game, he just needs to grow and develop his body a bit as he's still a bit lightweight. I wish Frizell well but he needs to develop a mental attitude to match physical attributes.

JB 333 days ago

I don’t know where Gregor gets his research from sometimes, there have been some odd claims in his recent articles. If it’s all from memory, then he’s a bit shaky on the details of Kaino’s life and career. He moved to NZ at the age of 4, so his situation was markedly different to Frizell who actually grew up there. Jerome was also not plucked from obscurity, he was always supposed to be the next big thing. He was world under 21 player of the year, and became an All Black the following year. He did end up being a late bloomer at test level, so he and Frizell have that in common.

Utiku Old Boy 333 days ago

Part of Frizzell's AB form might also be down to Jason Ryan clarifying his roles and actually developing his technique(s). A number of forwards are now thriving where before they looked confused and muddling. I don't think his form for the Highlanders this year was that outstanding nor his play at lock for them the source of his AB form - as the writer implies. Frizzell, like Kaino has always had the physical attributes but coaches often don't know how to unlock those attributes in simple, clear terms. Ryan (and Robertson) do.

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