OPINION: The personable Chiefs and All Blacks prop Kane Hames is discussing the end of-season tour, holidays and the exodus overseas when the value of the All Blacks’ break from rugby becomes clear.
“After the Wales game [in November last last year] I had already started thinking about Nelson [his home-town],” he says. “When the fulltime whistle went I knew that I was going back home.
“I don’t get to spend a lot of time there every year. So once that whistle went I know there were a lot of boys excited about getting to see their loved ones and get to spend a good break with them.”
Aotearoa, whanau and yes, probably the beach: that’s where the All Blacks minds are at the end of a long season.
The 12-week break the All Blacks give them may irk Super Rugby coaches but the mental refreshment is key: and it is a part of the package that has kept the All Blacks on top for so long.
There is a physical element to it as well of course. By the end of 2017 players such as Sam Whitelock were running on fumes. But it is not as if conditioning goes out the window over December and January.
As Hames puts it: “If you turn up in bad shape you’ll have a pretty tough year.”
But it’s clear that the intention of the time off is to wash the players’ minds of rugby content, as much is possible anyway. No video clips to study, no messages from the coaches to discuss performance, no eyes peering over the shoulder.
“What happens it that you leave the environment and that’s it, they leave you alone for the break,” Hames says.
“It’s a genuine break. Nobody calls you, nobody texts you. You are not required to anything specific.
“I spent a lot of time training with [personal trainer] Glenn Stewart in Nelson. I spent nearly every day with him. But other than that I didn’t do any team stuff.
“I didn’t do any scrummaging, there wasn’t any sort of rugby environment at all, and that is mentally refreshing when you’ve played the amount of rugby I did last year, from late January to early December.”
That the players need the spell away is of little surprise.
Top players in New Zealand spend large parts of the year away from family and for the rest of the time they are operating on other peoples’ schedules. Be at training at this time, the airport at that time, recovery at such a time.
It is a privileged life but it is rigid. The danger of going stale is omnipresent.
There’s another element to it as well. Hames is contracted until the end of 2019 but is refreshingly honest about the discussions taking place among the players about moves overseas.
“A lot of boys talk about it. Conversations are always happening,” he says.
Yet those talks are not just about how many zeroes there are on a contract.
Kiwis who play overseas and return to New Zealand for mini breaks – La Rochelle recruit Tawera Kerr-Barlow has been floating around the Chiefs’ gym – are pumped for information about what player welfare and lifestyles are like. They want to know if they are going to be flogged.
The All Blacks’ 12-week break is part of New Zealand Rugby’s package of incentives to keep its players in the country when they have better financial offers on the table.
It is a burden on Super Rugby coaches but this is an imperfect world: in rugby’s crowded calendar compromises must be made to reinvigorate players for the toil ahead.