Inspirational leader Kieran Read has returned to steer the All Blacks ship towards a special destination next year, writes MARC HINTON.
Injuries can be a curse, and they can be a blessing too. All Blacks captain Kieran Read is looking at two straight years curtailed by physical failings as very much falling into the latter category. Less is most definitely best at this stage of a long and decorated career.
Read re-entered the rugby field only in 2018 in the wake of the June international break, spending the greater part of the first six months of the season rehabbing his back post-surgery. It was a delicate procedure aimed at repairing a disc problem that surfaced before the All Blacks’ final Test of 2017 in Cardiff and, naturally enough, no risks have been taken along the path of recovery.
But now that Read has traversed that precipitous trail and taken his place – first for the business end of the Crusaders’ tilt at a second consecutive Super Rugby title, and then for the Rugby Championship, which kicked off for the All Blacks with back-to-back Bledisloe Cup clashes against the Wallabies – the purposeful manner with which the powerful No 8 has gone about his business suggests a man on a mission.
It was a mindset Read happily backed up when he said of his belated return to rugby in 2018: ‘At this time of my career, it’s maybe a blessing in some ways. You don’t want to miss rugby, but I’m sure it’ll keep me refreshed this year and heading into next year.
‘I’m feeling pretty good and hopefully it’s going to be a big benefit for me this year and into next year too. That’s what I’m really aiming for.’
You get the impression All Blacks coach Steve Hansen could have lived with his 32-year-old skipper, who had ticked off 109 Tests heading into the latest incarnation of the southern hemisphere’s flagship international competition, not even taking the field at all in 2018 if it meant he would have been fresh, fit and firing for the World Cup year that follows.
Read, after all, has never lost a match in two previous World Cups, playing a key role for the 2011 and 2015 All Blacks who made history by securing back-to-back global titles. Now that a remarkable third straight crown beckons, the skipper’s presence is considered vital. He is not just a world-class No 8 with the physicality and skills to turn Test matches on their heads, but he is very much the inspirational leader of an outstanding group of men who have dominated the international scene for longer than anyone cares to remember.
But Read’s speedy and uneventful recovery, followed by a seamless return to action, has seen him take his place for what shapes as a World Cup dry-run over the back part of 2018. After the Rugby Championship, the New Zealanders will line up in back-to-back Tests in Japan (against the Wallabies and the host nation) that they have earmarked as a big part of their preparation for the global tournament.
That they follow those twin internationals in World Cup territory with consecutive Tests against England and Ireland – considered the principal northern hemisphere threats next year – at their northern fortresses shapes as a shakedown of World Cup proportions.
Injuries have put fewer miles on the Read odometer over the past couple of seasons than expected, which has to be a good thing for the All Blacks. He had wrist surgery before the 2017 season, which delayed his entry into Super Rugby with the Crusaders, then broke his thumb on the same hand just three games into his return to action. At a time of his career when his playing time needs careful monitoring, he has been forced to truncate his seasons to something very much more manageable.
Not that Read isn’t rapt to be back on the field now. Having taken all the time he needed to rehab his repaired back in 2018, he will now slot seamlessly back in for a campaign that should offer a fair pointer for prospects next year.
‘You’ve just got to be patient with things like nerves and mucking around with your spinal cord – you can’t rush things,’ he told reporters on his return to action. ‘I guess if I wasn’t a rugby player I would probably have been feeling 100% a month or so ago, but if you run around and get hit and smashed by people, it’s a bit different.’
It had been a good feeling, too, to finally lace up those boots, and apply his firm shoulder to the wheel of Crusaders and All Blacks rugby.
‘When you’re slogging away by yourself it’s very tough, so to have the ball in your hand and have a run-around with the lads is a real positive and certainly gave me a big lift.
‘There were anxious moments early on. There’s that initial time where you try to bend over and tie your shoelaces and you can’t even do that, and you think “what the hell’s going on?” But you get past that.’
Though Read’s back wasn’t ‘100%’, it was as close as he needed it to be as he soon found his stride in 2018.
‘When you are actually playing, yeah, it is good. But you wake up a bit stiffer in the morning nowadays. Nerves generally take about 12 months to fully heal. It is sweet-as when you are out there playing and you just have to be a bit smarter around the activities you do.’
In a funny sort of way, Read’s absence, for the Crusaders and All Blacks, has allowed New Zealand’s renowned depth to further manifest. Jordan Taufua, Pete Samu and Heiden Bedwell-Curtis made a fine fist of covering for his absence in the red and blacks, while Luke Whitelock revealed himself as a more than capable understudy at Test level.
It has been a theme for Hansen as he has waded through a heavy injury list, in 2017 and through the June Test series against France.
‘We used 54 players across 2017, blooded new guys and had some tough battles. That galvanises you for some important games this year and then the World Cup,’ said Read.
But his Crusaders coach Scott Robertson perhaps encapsulated his No 8’s situation best of all when he said: ‘He has got 18 months left in New Zealand rugby. Every game is pretty special when you have had an injury like he has.’
Every game is special. But one, at the sharp end of a certain global tournament, is more special than them all.
– This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.