Jerome Kaino has a routine. Off the bus, under the stands, into the changing room, bag down, same spot, every time. By the door to the toilets, just to the right.
It’s been the same in all but one of the 16 tests he’s played at Eden Park, in a career that now spans 80 internationals.
It’s that familiarity, that routine at Eden Park, that Kaino says leads to the comfort of playing there, and with it a belief that the All Blacks will do well.
“There’s a feeling of confidence when you run out there because no one in the team has lost there (with the All Blacks), so there’s no bad memories,” Kaino says.
The closest the All Blacks enforcer comes to an uncomfortable recollection at Fortress All Blacks is that one time his regular perch in the changing shed was already occupied.
“Brad Thorn took my seat,” Kaino says, laughing at the memory.
Did he make an issue of the transgression?
“I just sat next to him. It’s Brad Thorn! I wasn’t going to ask him to move. Adjust and adapt, mate, adjust and adapt.”
Coming off a rare defeat, the All Blacks will be out to do exactly that when they return to Eden Park Saturday for the third, series-deciding test against the Lions. They might well find comfort in the venue, but Kaino knows it won’t be the ground that wins the match.
There is nothing uniquely special about Eden Park despite the fact the All Blacks haven’t lost there since a quite extraordinary test match against France in 1994.
“I was captain when the All Blacks lost consecutive tests to France at home for the first time and lost the series, so ‘no’, there’s nothing good about that day”
– Sean Fitzpatrick on the All Blacks’ last defeat at Eden Park
With three minutes to play that July day 23 years ago, the All Blacks led 20-16 when first-five Stephen Bachop kicked deep into French territory.
Skipper Philippe Saint-Andre gathered the ball and launched a remarkable counter attack from inside his 22m, beating three tackles before he was scragged by lock Mark Cooksley.
From the ruck the ball went right, quickly through the hands before Emile Ntamack cut back inside. Quick hands again and some superb running saw fullback Jean Luc Sadourny score one of the best tries ever seen at Eden Park.
It was All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick’s only test defeat at his home ground and it still hurts today.
I asked him if, as the years have passed and memories fade, he can reflect on the wonderful French try – now roundly known as “the try from the end of the world”.
There is a pause, a draw of breath, and then a quietly spoken “no”. He does accept it was an amazing game and one played under huge pressure after France won the first test in Christchurch, but it’s not a day he remembers fondly.
“I was captain when the All Blacks lost consecutive tests to France at home for the first time and lost the series, so ‘no’, there’s nothing good about that day,” Fitzpatrick says gently.
But he loves Eden Park, even if the remodelled version is so different to the stadium he played in that it is hard, when he returns, to picture how it once was.
It was home to Fitzpatrick during his 127 games for Auckland and 25 for the Blues. It was where they locked away the Ranfurly Shield for the best part of a decade, won back-to-back Super Rugby titles and, of course, where he helped the All Blacks win the inaugural World Cup in 1987.
With Auckland he watched, as the players stood in a huddle on the field at halftime, their fans walk from one end of the ground to the terraces at the other end so they would be on-hand to see more Auckland tries.
He was there for the first time as a 10-year-old with his dad when the All Blacks lost 16-10 to England in 1973, and again in ‘75 when they beat Scotland in the ‘underwater test’.
Fitzpatrick played 16 tests at Eden Park and that French loss was his only defeat there. He and the All Blacks drew there with South Africa, 18-18, a month later and since then the men in black have never lost at the Garden of Eden. That’s 38 consecutive wins, 39 tests without defeat.
It is a stunning record, though there have been some close calls, including the 8-7 win against France in the 2011 World Cup final.
For those involved in the All Blacks, Eden Park is a great place to play, but there’s no magic wafting around the Sandringham stadium that bestows unbeatable powers upon the team. Their record there is really just a statistical quirk.
“We haven’t lost a lot of games in New Zealand for a long time so you could say that about all grounds,” coach Steve Hansen said when asked if there was anything special about Eden Park.
He’s right. In their last 48 tests in New Zealand, the All Blacks have lost just once – to the Lions in Wellington last week.
Since Hansen joined the All Blacks as Graham Henry’s assistant in 2004 they have played 82 tests in New Zealand and lost only four of those. The first was to South Africa in Dunedin in 2008. In 2009, they again lost to the Springboks, this time in Hamilton, and lost again in Dunedin, though this time to France.
Then last week they fell to the Lions in Wellington, prompting one wag to tweet “Eden Park must shake its head at these loser stadiums”.
Hansen is quick to point out that just being at Eden Park for this monumental test on Saturday won’t ensure a win.
“They’re all the same size ground and I’m sure the Lions will feel they’re capable of beating us there because they’ve done it at Westpac (in Wellington).
“It’s not the ground, it’s the people who are playing on the ground that will make the difference.”