Thursday 21 September 2017

We carry the expectations of a nation into every game – Read

All Blacks star fully aware defeat to Ireland would rock rugby-mad country to its core

Kieran Read says New Zealand have played a better style of rugby this year as they look to complete the perfect season
Kieran Read says New Zealand have played a better style of rugby this year as they look to complete the perfect season
David Kelly

David Kelly

It is one of the few times this year that Kieran Read – irrefutably rugby's stellar performer in 2013 – has been stopped in his tracks.

When we ask him to explain just why it is that the All Blacks remain so serenely supreme, the imminent IRB Player of the Year must pause for reflection.

Little wonder. For when an All Black reflects on the personal domination that drives him towards the quest for greatness, he does so with the weight of an expectant nation upon his shoulders.

Meanwhile, across town, Irish players are busily embracing the tag of underdogs with the glee of a child embracing their favourite teddy bear.

Just one of the many differences that separate the extraordinary from the ordinary.

"For us," explains Read, "it is about something which is much bigger than the game, much more important than the players or the team. It is about a whole country.

"It is based upon a rich tradition and culture stretching back over a century, and it is that history which forces each and everyone of us to maximise our potential as All Black players.

"It's a lot for people to live up to, all that pressure and expectation. But it is something which is always ingrained in you as an All Black. You're reminded of it every day.

"It's the way we've been brought up as players. And it's the way that our nation has become accustomed to."

It is suffocating at times. Last winter – their summer – the All Blacks returned home from England to a wounded nation after suffering their solitary defeat in an otherwise blemish-free run of 34 Test matches.

It was as if somebody pointed at the Sistine Chapel and suggested to Michelangelo that he had painted the sky with the wrong shade of blue.

"It was a tougher time than normal for us certainly," admits Read ruefully, as one defeat stood starkly apart despite all the wondrous successes of a side who remain world champions and have been ranked No 1 in the world for four years.

CHALLENGE

"That's all the people were talking about back home. It reminds you clearly just what their expectation is. It's a new challenge for us this time around and we are working hard to achieve it. We'll make sure this time not to go home with that feeling."

Losing to a team to whom they have never succumbed would rock this rugby-devoted country to its very core.

"It's understood," Read says bluntly, when the issue of Ireland's fallow record against the men in black is concerned.

"It comes down to those expectations again. Only a few sides haven't tasted victory against us and we are all aware that Ireland is one of those.

"And we want to make sure that none of us are part of a team that eventually happens to."

Even Read's own family contribute to the constant pressure to deliver.

Read's father emails his son regularly, but often in a seemingly pithy manner. His latest missal was curt and abruptly to the point.

"You're only as good as your last effort," he wrote.

"That would be like him alright," Read smiles. "It just focuses my mind on my own job and what I need to do. We all know the one time last year when we didn't get it right."

Even within the prism of world domination, the All Blacks still strive for an even greater excellence as they plan to retain their World Cup in two years' time.

It is not enough for them to topple opponents, seemingly at will. They aim to do so with a flourish.

"We think we're playing a better style of rugby, or at least trying to," Read proclaims. "We don't look at four-year cycles or any of that stuff, that's all for the coaches to work out.

"For us, we know we've had a pretty successful year, but that doesn't mean anything in the context of a World Cup. We had an average year in 2011, but still won the World Cup.

"We know we've not been playing our best footie up here since we came to Europe. That has a lot to do with conditions and the way other teams have played against us. Mentally we have been strong, though, and that's something we feel we have learned from this tour that we can take into future challenges."

One of the constants of New Zealand's unquenchable desire to succeed is that they rarely slip below the exalted standards each player self-regulates; they would never dare to deliver such a meek display as witnessed by Ireland last weekend.

To their credit, or perhaps they are merely being politely diplomatic, they don't expect Ireland to abase their accepted standards of performance for a second successive weekend.

"I don't think they were happy with the way they turned up," says Read with a significant dollop of under-statement. "They're a much better side than that across the board. And we expect a completely different team to turn up next Sunday."

The problem for Ireland is that New Zealand will turn up in exactly the same fettle as they do for all their Test engagements.

The secret of their success is that there is no secret.

Irish Independent

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