Kieran Read’s appointment as All Blacks captain was simple, sensible and seamless, writes MARC HINTON.
Among the myriad decisions Steve Hansen has to make in year one of existence post winning back-to-back World Cups with the All Blacks, and post the storied careers of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu etc, one has stood above the others as the proverbial no-brainer. Picking the next captain of New Zealand’s finest has given the master coach about as much trouble as beating down the challenge from the best of the northern hemisphere.
It’s why Hansen came out absurdly early in the piece and declared Kieran Read as his captain-in-waiting even before the Super Rugby season began. There was nothing to mull over. Nobody else to appraise. No doubts to be assuaged. Read, like McCaw before him, has served his time as the apprentice leader, and is now as ready as ready can be to assume the big job. One of the many things these All Blacks pride themselves on is the tricky art of future-proofing. They like to anticipate change long before it ever pokes its head around the corner.
So way back in February, Hansen anointed Read as his next skipper, and it raised nary an eyebrow in a country where most rugby decisions are debated like a contentious act of parliament. How could you argue the inarguable? Question the obvious? Read is ready for the responsibility. He’s a hugely respected, well-established senior All Black who, at his best, stands supreme as the world’s best No 8 and a master of his craft.
He’s also stood side by side with McCaw for the best part of the past decade, learning the art of leadership, of inspiration and of standard-setting from the man widely acknowledged as the finest captain to have laced up a pair of footy boots. Read is simply ready to lead his men.
The coach and his new captain had three conversations prior to Hansen going public with his anointment. You can only imagine they were not complicated. One took place in the wake of the World Cup victory in England, a second prior to Christmas back in Christchurch, and the final one soon after in the new year.
‘I guess it had to fall on someone,’ says Read with a shrug, demonstrating the same unassuming manner of his predecessor. ‘This All Blacks team is going to go out there and perform to a high standard. The expectation is that they are going to win, and we will certainly aim to do that. It is a huge honour; I am super stoked, really privileged and humbled to be given that role. It’s nothing to take lightly, and I have got to step up. But I guess we will get to that a bit later in the year.’
Interestingly, Read was in no mood to give up the Crusaders leadership, as McCaw did over the latter part of his All Blacks reign. Perhaps he sensed the importance of this Todd Blackadder farewell season; perhaps it was the need to re-establish culture in the wake of the departures of McCaw and Carter.
‘I feel that the best way I can add to this team at the Crusaders right now is to be captaining the side,’ he said at the start of the season. ‘I can really grow the young guys and I want to give back to the players who are around.’
In terms of the All Blacks job, it was an easy decision for Hansen for the simple reason that it was really no decision at all. The plan had been put in place as far back as 2012 when Read first captained the All Blacks on their northern tour. He had been McCaw’s lieutenant ever since, and is such a similar character, thinker, player and leader that the transition is expected to be all but seamless in June when the All Blacks host Wales three times in their first Tests as back-to-back world champions.
‘I love being captain and I get a good kick out of it,’ Read says. ‘There is extra motivation if you are captain, but hopefully that doesn’t change my game too much.
‘You get so much out of it,’ he adds. ‘It’s not just playing a game of rugby. There is so much at stake for what this team means to so many people. The buzz you get out of it every time is huge. For me, it’s pretty easy to get up for it. We want to continually be at the top.’
Let’s make one thing clear: Read is no Richie McCaw clone. He is his own man. With his own personality. Yes, there are a lot of similarities with the great man in the way they carry themselves, on and off the field, the way they approach their craft and in their attitudes around leadership. But this will very much be the Read era, rather than a continuation of the McCaw one.
Hansen has already said he will be empowering his new group of leaders in the All Blacks.
‘The message is that it is our time,’ says Hansen. ‘We have to play like world champions and it’s important that, just because we are losing great players, you don’t expect the next man to be like the one he is replacing. It is Reado’s turn to show what he can do as captain.’
As is the All Blacks way, he will have no shortage of support. The new leadership group contains, as well as the new skip, Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Aaron Smith, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith.
Hansen refuses to accept that he is heading into a ‘rebuilding phase’ and says the desire is still strong in the All Blacks to continue to improve their game.
‘We have managed to play in the past without Richie or Dan and it is time for this group to step up again and for us to find other champions. Someone will stand up.’
Expect Read to set the tone there. If he’s learned one thing from McCaw it’s that the best way to lead is to lead by example.
– This article first appeared in the June 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine