New Zealand captain Kieran Read on course to return for first Lions test
New Zealand captain Kieran Read is firmly on course to make his comeback from injury in Saturday's first Test against the British and Irish Lions.
Read has been sidelined since breaking his thumb while on Super Rugby duty for the Crusaders just over seven weeks ago.
But All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster delivered an upbeat fitness bulletin when he spoke to reporters in Auckland on Tuesday.
Number eight Read, who has won 97 caps, took over as skipper from Richie McCaw after the 2015 World Cup and is a huge part of New Zealand's bid to topple the Lions.
Head coach Steve Hansen will announce his starting line-up for the opening Lions clash at Eden Park later this week, and Read looks set to be in it.
"Firstly, he didn't want to miss it (the first Test)," Foster said. "He is desperate to play. He is our leader, so that's natural.
"Secondly, the diagnosis has always been that he was going to be due to play this game, and we have been monitoring that progress versus the initial diagnosis.
"It was a little bit touch and go for last week (against Samoa) whether there was a chance to get him a few minutes under his belt. It didn't happen, but we are pretty satisfied.
"He has had his first real solid hit-out with contact and everything, and hopefully he comes through that really well by the end of the day, and then it becomes a reasonably easy decision."
Foster also hailed Read's captaincy since he took over the reins from a retired McCaw following New Zealand's victorious 2015 World Cup campaign.
"He has been a big part of the leadership group for a long time now, and just the way he grew into the (captaincy) role last year," Foster added.
"The biggest accolade I can give him is the way he grew people around him. He has a very inclusive leadership style, encourages a lot of decision-making from the group around him and earned a lot of respect for that.
"To have Reado back would be a real boost for us."
Foster, meanwhile, gave short shrift to Lions boss Warren Gatland's comments three days ago when he highlighted what he sees as New Zealand players illegally blocking to prevent opponents contesting possession in the air.
Gatland also claimed his opposite number Hansen might be worried leading into the Test series.
"We were apparently bad scrummagers last week," Foster said.
"This week we are bad at something else, and next week I can guarantee we will be useless at something else next week, so that's how I'm treating it.
"Look, there is a bit of banter going on.
"Obviously, he (Gatland) has tried to highlight some things he doesn't think we are doing very well. We appreciate the feedback, but it doesn't change much of our plan."