Liam Squire and Vaea Fifita are posing hard man Jerome Kaino the toughest challenge of an illustrious All Blacks career dating back to his first test against Ireland in 2006.
Having heeded the late Jerry Collins’ advice to inject more mongrel into his game, Kaino has come a long way since first displaying his rugby talent as a member of the champion St Kentigern College First XV.
So good did he become that he was a strong candidate to win the MVP award at the 2011 World Cup which went to gallant French captain Thierry Dusautoir whose team gave the All Blacks such a fright in the final.
Having also featured prominently in the All Blacks successful defence of their world crown, Kaino’s bone-crunching tackles have not diminished despite his 34 years. But Liam Squire, 26, and Vaea Fifita, 25, are also able defenders and much sharper attackers.
Interestingly, all three are 1.96cm tall, with Squire the same weight as Kaino at 109kg and Fifita just 2kg lighter.
Given his first starting chance against Argentina, the athletic Fifita capped an outstanding attacking game with a try which ranks among the greatest scored by a New Zealand forward.
The country has produced phenomenal loose forwards of the calibre of Richie McCaw, Michael Jones, Zinzan Brooke, Buck Shelford, Ian Kirkpatrick, Kel Tremain, Waka Nathan and current national captain Kieran Read. But none possessed the speed of Fifita and Ardie Savea.
Like Kaino and Squire, Fifita’s best position is blindside flanker although he played most of this season for the Hurricanes at lock.
It helped his work ethic in the tight stuff but limited his chances to roam wide, lengthen his stride and terrorise defences with his speed.
However Kaino’s biggest immediate threat as the country’s starting test No 6 is Squire who has his killer instinct and a sharper attacking edge.
Having lost Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu after the 2015 World Cup, the All Blacks have coped remarkably well since.
Sure, they lost to Ireland in Chicago last year and failed to produce peak form this year against Argentina and the drawn series against the British and Irish Lions. But they bounced back with a vengeance with a record 57-0 walloping of the Springboks.
This without fullback Ben Smith on sabbatical and Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Israel Dagg and Jordie Barrett who are all out with injuries.
Add to that Aaron Cruden, Charlie Faumuina and Steven Luatua who have waived their international ambitions to chase the big bucks abroad.
Meanwhile talented young guns are firing.
Jordie Barrett did well at fullback and centre before his injury and would have done better had he been given a crack at second-five outside brother, Beauden.
Rieko Ioane has been a sensation on the left wing and Damian McKenzie remains a bright prospect, even if his belief that attack is always the best means of defence occasionally gets him in strife.
With Lima Sopoaga proving an admirable first-five back up for Beauden Barrett, it remains for the selectors to decide who among Ryan Crotty, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape and Sonny Bill Williams is their best midfield combination.
So far this season, Williams and Crotty have not gelled as sweetly as did Crotty and Lienert-Brown last year.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author