Phil Gifford: All Blacks captain has some exceptional natural gifts

Phil Gifford,
Publish Date
Saturday, 9 March 2019, 10:49AM
Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

Kieran Read will leave New Zealand rugby at the end of the year as the best All Blacks No 8 of the past 50 years.

That's not a statement rolled out in the heat of Read's announcement he'll be playing for the Toyota club in Japan after the World Cup.

I believed the same thing five years ago when writing a book in which I picked the best All Blacks XV from players I'd seen since first sitting on a press bench at a test in 1965.

Read gets the vote for No 8 just ahead of Zinzan Brooke, who himself is closely followed by a trio of Brian Lochore, Murray Mexted and Buck Shelford.

Like Brooke, Read has exceptional natural gifts, including remarkable speed. Former Canterbury teammate Reuben Thorne recalls that from Read's first season in Christchurch in 2006, when Read had travelled south from his family home in Karaka, he was the fastest forward in the squad.

"His style of running is quite deceptive because he doesn't look as if he's running that quickly. But right from the start, he was really fast."

A point of difference for Read, says Thorne, "is the genuine speed he brings when attacking in the wide channels".

Canterbury halfback Andy Ellis goes further.

"Reado wasn't just beating all the forwards, he was faster than some of the backs, one of whom happened to be me. He reminds me of that to this day."

Todd Blackadder, who coached Read at the Crusaders, sums up Read, the attacking force, this way: "He does everything so well. But when he runs with the ball, holy shit."

Brooke was quick, too, with innate abilities that included kicking an astonishing 50m dropped goal in the 1995 World Cup semifinal against England. There were no issues with toughness. Brooke was a man who when he was 14 was shearing 300 sheep in a nine-hour day. His almost pathological competitiveness was a standing joke with teammates. He and Justin Marshall once challenged each other to see how much water they could drink in their hotel room.

"We ended up taking turns sitting on the toilet all night with water coming out from everywhere," Marshall once told me.

Read edges ahead on the fact that he's become such a safe pair of hands at the front of a lineout. He often calls himself there in a test when a throw is crucial. Lineouts were more conservative in the 1990s, so it's an aspect Brooke never developed.

Lochore emerged at a time when forwards were starting to do more ball carrying and a scything run to set up a try for wing Ian Smith in 1965 at Eden Park against South Africa was a stunning example of his capabilities.

Mexted's unique style as a commentator can obscure the fact he was a brilliant No 8 in the 1970s, so dynamic and involved, one of his All Blacks coaches, Eric Watson, once teased him, saying, "Would you like me to get you your own ball, Murray? Then the others can have a game, too."

Shelford belongs in the elite group because, while there may not have been quite the agility and fine skills of a Read or a Brooke, he more than compensated for that by being so tough, he made a blacksmith's anvil look slightly effete.

Read was spotted at Papakura's Rosehill College. He was whisked off to (no surprise here) St Kentigern College on a scholarship but he missed home and his old school and returned to Rosehill, where in his last year, he made the New Zealand Secondary Schools team.

In 2004, he was in the New Zealand under-19 team, deeply impressing coach Aussie McLean. In 2006, Reuben Thorne found out.

It was late in the Crusaders' campaign of 2006, and Thorne was working out in the gym at Rugby Park in Christchurch. So were members of the Canterbury NPC squad.

McLean, now the Canterbury coach, said to Thorne, "See that guy over there, Kieran Read. He'll be the next All Blacks No 6." Thorne was a little startled. At the time, he was the All Blacks No 6.

"I thought, 'Hang on a minute. What's going on here?' So I said to Aussie, 'Righto. Good luck to him, but he'll have to get past me first'."

Later in the year, playing and training with Read in the Canterbury squad, Thorne got a clear idea of why McLean was so enthusiastic about Read.

"Early on, Kieran was pretty quiet, but he didn't muck around. You could see he was committed, and in a game, he was hard and physical, so he fitted into the Canterbury scene very easily."

It's a quirk of fate that Read would take over the All Blacks captaincy from Richie McCaw, a man who could only reasonably be challenged as the greatest All Black by Colin Meads.

Ellis, who in his last seven seasons at the Crusaders played halfback with Read at No 8, says the leadership styles of the two men are different.

"Kieran came off the back of probably the greatest captain of any sport in any era. Richie was an inspirational leader from the front guy, really tough and totally fearless. He was incredible.

"Reado became a leader firstly because of how good a player he is. What he also brings is a really personal feel. Talk with players about what he's like as a human being and they can't speak highly enough of him. When you're new to the team, he's the sort of guy who'll sling an arm over the shoulder and ask how you're getting on. He finds out the names of wives and children. He cares about people, and players respond to that."

Read as a captain will finally be judged on what happens at the World Cup. There may be alarm bells in the Rugby Championship soon. They may be real, or, which feels more likely, they could be ignored.

Keep in mind that in 2015, a month before the World Cup started, the All Blacks, who most fair judges would rate the best Cup squad from any country in the professional era, had lost 27-19 to the Wallabies in Sydney. New Zealand won 41-13 a week later at Eden Park, but at the time, the victory felt a little hollow because coach Michael Cheika had made six changes from his side that had won in Sydney.

What happens in the Rugby Championship is no more than mind games. What counts for Read and his team will be results at the International Stadium in Yokohama in October.

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