Byron Kelleher: 'We're the best in the world - and now we have to prove it'

The All Black No 9 is not short of confidence - or talent. Nick Townsend talks to a Kiwi keen to embrace the mantra of team unity
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The Independent Online

Google the name of Byron Kelleher, and you are as likely to be presented with Asian erotica sites as those for rugby union aficionados. That is if you don't hit on appreciations of the work of Lord Byron.

Kelleher, an All Black veteran of 45 Tests, including the 1999 and 2003 World Cups, and Ashley Spalding, his former porn star-turned-model girlfriend, a veteran of Las Vegas and 88 adult films, were for a time the raunchy Antipodean answer to Posh & Becks. Until they split.

But at least the Waikato and Chiefs scrum-half demonstrated that sex and sport can be a potent combination. Kelleher's liaison with the Singapore-born actress, known professionally as Kaylani Lei, coincided with some of his best rugby; he emerged as New Zealand's No 1 scrum-half, forcing the country's most-capped player in that position, Justin Marshall, into retirement after a long rivalry for the No 9 shirt.

Reportedly, the eyes of Byron and Ashley met across a room crowded with numerous sexual egos at Jamaica's Hedonism resort. Ashley apparently fell not just for his smouldering looks but the fact that he was "cocky".

That arrogance is evident enough as he returns from training to the Kensington Hotel where the tourists are holed up in preparation for today's start of their European tour at Twickenham. Shaun Perry, on his belated England debut at 28, can be certain of one thing: he is about to be confronted by a man at the peak of condition and playing prowess. You know that for a fact, because Kelleher tells you so.

"We have played a lot of rugby this year," says the 29-year-old who featured in all three defeats of Australia in the Tri-Nations. "We've had a rotation policy which has refreshed a lot of guys. It's been awesome for certain individuals to have a break, and come through. Personally, I feel great. I've just come out of a national competition that we won [the Air New Zealand Cup, in which he scored two tries in the final against Wellington]. I've played five or six games consecutively, and started to hit the top of my form."

For an All Black, that is a crucial factor; not just so that he overcome the team challenges ahead - against England today, France twice, and Wales - but so that he can successfully repel any conceivable opposition from within his own camp as next year's World Cup beckons. "Each individual wants to make sure they're in their top form," he says. "They don't want to give anybody an opportunity to get in there."

Under the coaching trium-virate of Graham Henry, late of Wales and the Lions; Steve Hansen, who succeeded Henry as Wales coach; and Wayne Smith, formerly of Northampton, the All Blacks approach this tour boasting a run of 15 consecutive victories before their last game of the Tri-Nations, a one-point defeat by South Africa.

We have seen this before from the tourists: an imperious march to the front line, but a surrender amid the searing heat of World Cup conflict. Can it really be different next year, especially in the alien territory of the northern hemisphere, for which this month's tour is a reconnoitre?

"We've created some unity among the team," says Kelleher. "I'd say that there's so much competitiveness within the All Blacks for positions that sometimes you can be a wee bit selfish. That's not the best thing for the team at times. We've tried to develop an understanding among this team that we're here for the All Blacks and the purpose of the All Blacks rather than for individuals. Sure, you want to bring your own game. But you need that unity among the team when it comes to the tough times."

He does not attempt to conceal his frustration at that lack of a World Cup winner's medal to place around his neck to add to the verbal accolades that hang in the air wherever the team travel. "There's no hiding that," he says. "We're claimed to be the best team in the world at the moment - which we are. If you front up and you win, you go home with the World Cup. If you don't, you fall over and you've got to wait another four years.

"We deeply want to win it. No doubts about it, we've got a great conditioning period next year. We can put some great foundations in, and make sure we peak at the right time."

England's World Cup triumph gave many countries an education in major tournament preparation, and Kelleher concedes that the All Blacks are not too proud to borrow and develop those ideas. "You've got to look at people who've won competitions, and what's worked for them," he says. "You try to use that, and put your own touch to it. In 2003, England were a very professional outfit, with hugely experienced players. They were a well-groomed side and very knowledgeable. They were the best team in the competition and they prepared for it well, so they came out on top. We've got a lot of experience on the plate at the moment. That's a positive aspect for us. We've got to make sure we exploit that."

For the moment, Kelleher's responsibility will be to exploit the international innocence of his counterpart, Perry. What did he know about him? "Bristol," says Kelleher, as though struck by a piece of divine brilliance. He smiles wryly. "No, I've done my homework and had a look at him, and the style of rugby that he plays. Matt Dawson has been a great player over the years, and now this a different challenge for me, but that's what I look forward to."

He adds: "From what I've seen, he [Perry] has got a good running game, and distributes the ball nicely from the rucks. And he keeps his forwards alive, and that's England's strength, let's face it. They've got a good, full pack. They're strong, they're big, and and they have backs with pace and agility.

"Obviously, they'll have been a bit disappointed with the Six Nations, but I believe the club game, particularly the Heineken Cup over here, has been great, and the style of rugby which they're trying to play now is more expansive than what they've played in the past. Due credit to them. I think they'll be a lot more dangerous than they have been."

Kelleher and his team-mates are primarily bent on making a statement of intent, just as England did in New Zealand and then Australia and New Zealand prior to the last World Cup. "There are certain games we definitely want to target," Kelleher agrees, alluding specifically to next Saturday's confrontation in Lyon. "But at the moment, the coaches are making sure they give each individual the chance to get some experience under their belt with a rotation policy. If we go down in one of these games by doing that, then the coaches will be quite happy to accept that - if that's what it takes for us to win the World Cup."

A year ago, the All Blacks walloped Wales and Ireland by an aggregate 86 points, but undoubtedly discovered more about themselves when, finishing the game with 13 men, their grand slam continued with a 23-19 defeat of England. "We saw that as a positive. That was a pretty proud moment for us," says Kelleher. "I think it showed a bit of soul among the All Blacks, even though we lost some guys through discipline, which was disappointing.

"We stuck together and still managed to win and continued our dream, which was to win the grand slam." He adds: "We always want to make sure that we utilise our skill, because we have plenty of that, but that day was definitely about character. It showed huge heart."

How much the haka, the Maori dance in which Kelleher is invariably an animated participant, strengthens that particular organ is debatable. "To me, it means time to myself, even though I've got my mates beside me," Kelleher says, explaining the haka's significance. "It's connecting me with the history of New Zealand and the people that I am representing."

Today, the All Blacks are again likely to employ the Kapa O Pango version of the pre-match dance, which they used before last year's match against England. It provoked controversy then because it culminates with what appears to be a throat-slitting gesture.

Kelleher shakes his head. "We have two hakas, and I call them brothers really," he says. "We brought out a new haka because we're a new team, and we've established a new identity. Just doing one haka, it became more of a commercial thing than a belief. It lost a bit of meaning and direction. So we've brothered it up, and it's given it new life."

But could this younger sibling be regarded as inflammatory? "No," he insists. "If you understand its meaning, it actually signifies drawing our last breath, bringing out our last bit of energy going through our vital organs." He adds: "We'd like our opponents to appreciate what we're about. But it's not done for them. It's for us. It's about our team."

A team with a powerful mission; one for whom another failure next year would be unacceptable to a small but expectant nation. "This will be my third World Cup, and probably my last," says Kelleher. "It's do or die for me." Somehow one suspects the former.


NAME: Byron Terrance Kelleher.

BORN: 3 December 1976, Dunedin, New Zealand.

VITAL STATS: 5ft 9in, 15st.


POSITION: Scrum-half.

CLUB CAREER: Otago in National Provincial Championship, Highlanders in Super 12 from 1999 - lost '99 final to Canterbury Crusaders; Waikato in NPC and Chiefs in Super 12 from 2004. Super 12 Player of the Year '99.

INTERNATIONAL CAREER: 45 caps for All Blacks; 30 points, six tries. debut 1999 v Samoa; one of only two All Blacks to survive from the 1999 Rugby World Cup squad, along with hooker Anton Oliver.

AND ANOTHER THING: Dated porn star Kaylani Lei for a while.