CAPE TOWN – For the All Blacks to win the World Cup for a third successive time, Kieran Read has to find the form that made him the best No8 in the world.
Read, leader of the All Blacks, underwent major back surgery in 2018 and his performances since coming back have been indifferent and lacked the influence of the past five years.
All Blacks captain Steve Hansen refuses to doubt his captain, though, and believes Read will stand tallest in the next six weeks, starting with today’s World Cup opener against the Springboks.
“He leads from the front and he is starting to get more and more demanding, which I like,’ said Hansen. ‘That’s important that he demands and has expectations. He has recovered from his back now and he is starting to play some good footy. He is a smart captain.”
Read hails from the small town of Drury in the Counties Manukau region on New Zealand’s North Island, although his Super Rugby fame is because of his success at the Crusaders.
He will retire from international rugby after the World Cup and join Springbok fullback Willie le Roux at Toyota in Japan’s professional league, but it is his final flurry as captain of the All Blacks that could define his international career.
And by define, I mean translate an exceptional international career into one that carries the iconic status of Read’s predecessor Richie McCaw.
Former Wales and British and Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton this week said that some captains simply look right when you think of who has held the World Cup in victory and who he expects to hold it in Japan.
Warburton, controversially if you are Welsh, identified Read as that particular type of captain and said it would not surprise him seeing Read lead the All Blacks to another World Cup title.
Warburton and Read were fierce rivals in battle but absolute gentlemen in any post-match interactions.
“He is a top bloke,” said Warburton. “He has been a fantastic player and a great leader of the All Blacks and he is even more impressive as a person away from the field.”
Warburton and Read in 2017 were joint winners after the British and Irish Lions drew a three-Test series with the All Blacks in New Zealand, but the very classy Warburton showed wonderful humility and respect in honouring Read first because the third Test was also Read’s 100th cap.
Warburton acknowledged Read’s successes in Super Rugby and as an All Blacks. Read, he added, was always humble in victory and gracious in defeat. The defeats haven’t been often, with Read losing just 15 times in 122 All Blacks Tests.
Springbok No8 Duane Vermeulen is another of Read’s direct opponents who doesn’t have a bad word to say about the All Blacks captain.
“We have a special relationship on and off the field, but on the field, we’re not going to hold back. We are going to go out guns blazing, but I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a player and as a captain,” said Vermeulen. “He’s been a great opponent and we are always good for a few drinks after any match. He is just one of the nice guys in rugby.”
Hansen’s praise of Read is consistent with the words of opponents like Warburton and Vermeulen.
“We owe ‘Reado’ a huge debt of gratitude,” said Hansen. “His contribution off the park has been just as impressive. He has developed into a fantastic leader, who has the utmost respect of all his peers. What he has achieved is remarkable and it is fair to say that he is one of the greats of our game, who has enhanced the legacy of not only the All Blacks jersey but also the Crusaders jersey.”
Read’s sincerity is a stand out feature and I recall his press conference after the All Blacks thrashed the Springboks 57-15 in Durban. He seemed more embarrassed at the scoreline than some of the Springboks did. He said the All Blacks would celebrate the victory over the Springboks in South Africa, but told the media it just didn’t seem real or right that the outcome had been so one-sided. All Blacks versus Springboks Test matches were not supposed to be like that.
Fast forward to 2018 when the Springboks beat the All Blacks 36-34 in Wellington, New Zealand, and Read was as gracious in saying the All Blacks on the day were not good enough to beat the Springboks.
Read, despite 103 Test wins in an All Blacks jersey, has never taken any match for granted, especially not against the Springboks. He has only lost four in 21 starts against the Springboks, but consistently declared Springbok Test matches as the toughest he has played.
“There is such respect between the players and coaches of South Africa and New Zealand. It epitomises what they’re about, and their physical approach and never giving up attitude. It’s the same things we do as well,” said Read earlier this week.
Read said playing the Springboks first-up was ideal as it meant the All Blacks had to be at their best from the outset of the tournament.
“The Springboks are physical, they’re kicking well and they take the points when they’re on offer using their strengths like their maul. They also have the ability to play off counter-attack and turn over the ball from their backs. We know what is coming our way and that’s great.”
The Boks also know what is coming their way from the All Blacks and Vermeulen and coach Rassie Erasmus believe that Read will be as influential as he has always been.
They’re not buying the talk that Read is past his best and neither is All Blacks coach Hansen.