Johannesburg - He may not be as big a name in World Rugby as his predecessor Richie McCaw but as the All Blacks stomp on towards another Rugby Championship title, it is captain Kieran Read who is front and centre – the epitome of the black jersey’s success.
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Read is not just the captain of the All Blacks, he is one of their most inspirational figures as well. A player moulded from the legacy of the black jersey, who has leadership written all over him. Read would walk into most world XVs and would be a pretty easy choice as captain as well.
And that is what makes him so dangerous, so daunting for the Springbok pack this weekend. The man, injuries aside, simply doesn’t have too many weaknesses.
His prowess is not the type of David Pocock threat that teams look to. But he is a complete player, and has the ability to strike when teams least expect it. That, together with the subtle touches he brings to his arsenal, have made him an exceptional player and leader of the world’s best team.
There are few players that can be described as the complete package in world rugby, but Read fits the bill.
So much so that former Scottish flanker Richie Gray, who worked with the Springboks for three years on their breakdown skills, and now consults to Montpellier in France, believes there are few around like him.
“First and foremost I think you have to imagine what he came into. He came in and took over from possibly one of New Zealand’s most iconic players – one of the greatest they have ever had - as a leader and as a player. There is no more difficult way to come into that arena, especially in that country,” Gray points out.
“He has done incredibly well, to the point where you hardly ever really hear of Richie McCaw. I’ve never really seen a piece written where someone out there has said we are really missing McCaw. That is testament to the structure that New Zealand rugby have got in place, where there is just this continual conveyer belt.
“But a conveyer belt of leaders is sometimes more difficult to create than a conveyer belt of talent, you know. So first and foremost to come through as a leader, he has shown that it has just been a seamless transition.
“That is the No 1 thing – I always think as a player, if you are happy in your leadership, and you are happy in the way you are involved, then you will be happy with what you are doing on the field and that will allow him to play. I always find sometimes if players are giving everything they can and then sometimes the captaincy takes away from their playing ability but he has done both seamlessly.
“A lot of credit must go to his franchise – the Crusaders – for that and also the way that New Zealand have developed this senior player group that comes through.”
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Gray also sees the work rate up when the going gets tough, and Read is fitter than most players on the park, adding to his aura.
“Secondly from a playing point of view, he is incredibly fit. And if you think he has had a bit of bother with injuries over the last few seasons but when he comes back it just seems as if he was as if he never was away.
“That is the other thing about an outstanding player – it doesn’t take him three or four games to get going again. He comes back and he pretty much just takes off from where he was.
“So incredible conditioning first and foremost and secondly he is allowed this role which pretty much frees him up. And how many times have we seen when New Zealand carry ball two or three phases, everybody gets sucked in at the breakdowns and the ball is moved wide. All of a sudden Kieran Read is on the outside channel, giving and taking passes, over the top and outstanding offloads. How many times have you seen it?
“That is where you have to be careful playing against him, and because he is allowed a very free-ranging role, he ends up in those outside channels creating overlaps. But also because of his speed and his skill level – he has an outstanding skill set – so it is very difficult to defend out there because he has New Zealand around him who he uses as support players.
“That for me is one of his key traits. He seems to pop up when least expected. Defensively South Africa are going to have to look out for that.”
Read gives the All Blacks an attacking weapon at the lineout, adding an extra option to their already impressive arsenal. And while he isn’t playing this weekend, Duane Vermeulen is probably the closest thing the Boks have to the All Blacks skipper.
“On the back of that he is also an excellent lineout forward but he is good at that, and he kinda epitomises the skillset you need for a world class No 8. He can run with ball, excellent defender and is there any weaknesses to him? No, not really, or he hides them very well. On top of that he has the leadership role, so when it comes to the multi-purpose player, he can pretty much do anything.
“I always used to enjoy the Read-Vermeulen battle. Because I actually thought they were quite similar types of player. Duane was also quite comfortable out in the wide channels, good passes and offloads, and have the power to break through the first tackle. Both of them are good on the ground, good contact men, solid defenders and they give you an option in the lineout as well. In some ways they are quite similar. It was always a good battle between those two.
“New Zealand are lucky they have a conveyer belt of talent, especially in the back row area, it has always been a strength. And they have always got the blend of the back row right, so that allows Read to play a certain type of game, knowing his six and seven will be doing the other bits.”
As for Read, he wants to showcase more of his skills, not less. And the continuing success of the black jersey makes that easy for him, as he told Rugby World magazine last year.
“I’d love to get my hands on the ball more again and showcase a bit more attacking flair. That’s a big part of my game. Last year I was working hard in different areas, like defence and it’s about getting opportunities and finding room to get in those positions.
“I’ve been working quite hard with Ian Foster (All Blacks assistant coach) on that. As a No 8 you always want to be a master of all trades and make sure you have a consistent game,” he told Rugby World.
Read doesn’t have too many weaknesses but for the Boks’ sake this weekend, they will need to find a few. The odds are up against them and Read knows all too well how to make those chances count.
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