'Talented' Vito, 'beast' Kaino, ex-All Blacks eye elusive European Champions Cup

·3-min read

Two Rugby World Cups apiece, a Super Rugby and a French Top 14 title is not a bad haul for a pair of former New Zealand back-rowers, but one trophy eludes Victor Vito and Jerome Kaino.

This weekend they meet at Twickenham for the European Champions Cup final as 34-year-old Vito's La Rochelle, making their first appearance in the top-tier decider, face 38-year-old Kaino's Toulouse, who last tasted continental success in 2010.

One individual who knows both very well is former All Blacks centre Conrad Smith.

He lifted the Webb Ellis trophy alongside the two in 2011 on home soil and in England four years later and was Vito's team-mate at the Hurricanes.

"They were guys you'd love to have in your team, particularly with what they could do on the field," Smith told AFP.

"A real pleasure to have in your team and people you didn't always enjoy playing against. With Jerome your immediate thoughts are defensively he's such a beast.

"I had a lot more time with Victor. Whether it's basketball or whatever he's playing, he's an extremely talented athlete. What you see on the rugby field is a product of that," he added.

Smith, a qualified lawyer, left New Zealand for a contract in France himself with Pau after the success in 2015 and became the club's defence coach before returning home last year.

Vito headed to the Atlantic coast 12 months later before Kaino arrived at the joint-record four-time winners in 2018.

"The guys that do well in France, Jerome and Victor are perfect examples, are those who are not trying to tell anyone what to do. You have to arrive and be really receptive," Smith said.

"You can tell they've done that really well, because they're playing really well.

"I know they adapted to French life. I did connect them both with a wine tour guide, Jean-Benoit, who is in Bordeaux, so they both enjoyed that experience," Smith added.

- 'Brothers to fathers' -

Kaino, who captained Toulouse to the domestic league success two years ago, is set to retire at the end of the campaign and would like to become a member of their off-field staff.

Vito's playing contract is until 2022 but has yet to make his post-career plans public.

"It will be more as to how Jerome enjoys coaching, and that you can never really know until you start doing it. He'll be a great coach, there's no doubt," Smith said.

"They get along with players, they have a really good nature and with all their experience and knowledge, they have the ingredients there.

"Whether they enjoy that experience of not being a brother but being a father, is another thing," he added.

This Saturday, Vito and Kaino, who both have Pacific Islands heritage, return to the scene of their 2015 Webb Ellis trophy victory in west London.

Smith will be watching, thanks to a satellite dish decoder from France which still works in New Zealand, but remained neutral as to which former team-mate he would prefer to add to their illustrious trophy haul.

"I do love the La Rochelle story, I think it's great. At Pau we were trying to emulate La Rochelle, because they had only got promoted two years before us, and now they're a beast of a team," Smith said.

"Toulouse, I have a huge amount of respect for. They play great rugby. That's why I’m going to enjoy it. I'm not hugely for either team.

"It's good to see an all-French final and two really good teams, who play really good rugby."