Kieran Read, who is poised to win his 100th Super Rugby cap, deserves every plaudit that comes his way, writes RYAN VREDE.
Read's emergence was nothing special. He seldom registered a mention from astute observers in his formative years and was frequently dismissed as an average player. To say he lived in Dan Carter and Richie McCaw's shadow at the Crusaders in the infancy of his career would be remiss as well. Others were deemed more worthy of that position by virtue of their real or perceived superiority to Read.
There was widespread surprise when he was named in the Blacks' year-end touring squad in 2008 and criticism grew stronger as the team struggled in the Rugby Championship in 2009. However, his struggles proved to be those of a gifted rookie getting to grips with the demands of Test rugby, not those of a terminally hopeless one.
In the years that followed, Read's performances would often outshine Carter and McCaw's, although it took some time for him to eat into their back-page dominance. Yet you never get the sense he cares about such acclaim. Indeed he seems happy to operate in the aforementioned shadows, despite his light burning so brightly it illuminates not only the superstar duo, but the rest of his team-mates as well. This is one of Read's primary strengths – he significantly increases the potency of the collective through his individual contributions. In his absence both the Crusaders and Blacks are undeniably weakened. A strong argument can be mounted that, at this stage of their careers, Read is more important to those teams than Carter and McCaw.
I watched Read at close quarters most intensely throughout the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand and was astounded by the myriad gifts he had. His physical strengths complemented his broad array of technical ones, and, perhaps most crucially, he was prominent when the heat came. McCaw's immense resolve and refusal to be beaten in the final against France was celebrated. For me Read was the most under-rated in a team of heroes. I tracked him as the French mounted their late assault. His work rate and tackle efficiency was superhuman. I'd suspected it before, but knew in those moments that he was a special player of unique constitution. It also bears remembering that only in 2010 did Read switch from blindside flank to No 8 full time. From there it took just four years for him to be recognised as the best player in the world by the IRB.
Read has grown into the pre-eminent player in his position in the game, one that boasts a near 88% win ratio in his 61 Tests for the Blacks. To play 61 Tests for the world champions in an era where they've been blessed with an abundance of talent is an incredible feat in itself. To win in excess of 85% of those matches catapults the significance of that achievement into rugby's stratosphere. Furthermore, some players of the recent Blacks vintage have had deep-rooted technical and physical flaws concealed from the view of the average punter by the high calibre of player surrounding them. Not Read, who has been at the wheel while they have been passive passengers, driving the Blacks to one spectacular achievement after the other.
His Crusaders career has been less decorated. He has been part of the team that has made the semi-final or final every year since his debut season in 2007, but has won just one title, in 2008. At 28 Read still has much to offer and may well add to his solitary Super Rugby title. It is almost certain that he will win more Rugby Championship titles and is a good bet to become a double World Cup winner.
I wish South Africa had an answer to Read. Duane Vermeulen is a fine player and the next best in the game after Read. But the gap between the two is significant and will grow wider still the more the Stormers play Vermeulen into the ground. It may well narrow as the South African gathers international experience (he has only played 16 Tests), but it is my view that he doesn't boast nearly as complete a skills set (and won't develop it to the point of comparison), nor will he ever be able to match Read's natural athleticism. The Springboks' once great hope, Pierre Spies, doesn't even warrant discussion in this context.
The Crusaders play their next fixture at 8:35 am on Friday morning South African time, which would for most be too early to toast a beer to Read. But I encourage you to raise your morning coffee in salute to a player who makes the game worth watching. Players of his ilk are rare and deserve to be celebrated with gusto.
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