'We knew we had to bring it against the Irish' - All Black Kieran Read on battle of Dublin
“There was a bit of uncertainty, I guess,” Kieran Read concedes with unguarded honesty, raising his eyebrows while reflecting on his first year as captain of New Zealand. “A bit of nervousness over exactly how we were going to operate.”
The All Blacks skipper is a personable alpha male, the sort of bloke who calls his backyard barbecue by its brand name without elaboration. Although his stock expression is a generous, toothy grin, this admission of vulnerability seems surprising.
After winning Rugby World Cup 2015, Steve Hansen lost a string of iconic all-time greats to international retirement. Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Keven Mealamu bowed out and took a combined total of 589 caps with them. The exodus left an unprecedented vacuum of experience.
Read embodied a generation bridge between old guard and newer blood. Having led the side on a handful of occasions since 2012, he was the natural successor to Crusaders colleague McCaw. But there was still a tricky psychological tone to set.
“I learned a lot from those guys [McCaw, Carter and co], having played with them and led through the last few years,” Read says. “You take lessons, but this group was completely different.
“We had to cater for that and I had to try to work out the best way of playing to those strengths. They weren’t as experienced as the guys we lost, but they were top of the tree from our group.
“We didn’t want players to sit there and think we could just rebuild and suddenly be just like we were. We pressed home the message that it was our team and that we could be as good as any All Black team – even better than we were the year before.
“If you went back to that point and told me that we’d only lose one game, I’d definitely take that and be pretty happy.”
Read wears his seniority well. He does look not entirely comfortable holding a PlayStation controller during a game of FIFA in the athlete services lounge at adidas headquarters. His opponent, a giggling Ardie Savea, has to remind him which is the pass button. Still, Read commands universal respect.
He name-checks openside flanker Sam Cane and scrum-half Aaron Smith – “a chirpy bugger” – as lieutenants he leant on over a 2016 that saw 80 tries across 13 victories. At times, not least during a 57-15 defeat of South Africa in Durban, New Zealand appeared to be taking their rugby to an entirely different level. The one loss, to Ireland in Chicago, obviously rankles. Read hopes “a lot of steel” grows from it. But the response, a fortnight later in Dublin, spoke louder than any words could.
Roared on by a raucous crowd, Ireland mounted another robust challenge – Read’s talk of “willing” at the breakdown sounds like an understated compliment to the intensity of Joe Schmidt’s side. New Zealand met fire with flames. A head-high hit from Cane that concussed centre Robbie Henshaw on the 10-minute mark set the tone and could have brought a red card.
South African Jaco Peyper, also the referee for Saturday’s first Test against the British and Irish Lions, felt a penalty was sufficient. He did sin bin Malakai Fekitoa for another high tackle in the second period, but copped vehement criticism for his performance. By the end, a 21-9 win for the All Blacks had married sumptuous attacking play – Beauden Barrett was awesome at fly-half – with muscle and menace.
“Coming off a loss two weeks previously, you’d have seen we were a team with edge,” Read explains, detailing a determined reaction in a matter-of fact manner.
“When a team has that edge, we do bring physicality. We never go out to break the law with anything, but you would have seen that our defence sets the tone for us. It’s probably been the cornerstone of our game.
“Aside from one game, we didn’t let in too many tries, so goes to show. When everyone is willing to do anything for the team, it’s great. And we knew we had to bring it against the Irish.”
Did the subsequent noise regarding New Zealand’s perceived cynicism come as a surprise?
“Yeah, a little bit. Looking back, we’ve always been slanted towards that way if anything does happen – being called cheats or whatever – whether that’s rightly or wrongly. I think our incidents are pretty isolated. None of our guys are malicious or anything. Things will happen on the field and we’ve just got to leave it at that.
“Any other team would come out pretty physical and things happen. Whatever anyone else says doesn’t bother us, so we’ll just keep doing what we need to do.”
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Having recovered from a broken thumb sustained on Super Rugby duty in Bloemfontein six weeks back, Read will dive directly into another ferocious encounter at Eden Park against Warren Gatland’s Lions. If it appears to be a gamble throwing the 31 year-old number eight back into the arena straightaway, think not only of Read’s prolonged excellence – entire attacking systems have been forged around a skill base that is almost unique – but also that he looked sharp and hungry on his comeback from a wrist operation earlier this season.
Read missed the “whole vibe” of the 2005 Lions tour because he was in Argentina at the Under-21 World Cup. The riotous influx of supporters for 2011 World Cup has wetted his appetite for the coming weeks, though. Sitting on 97 caps, there is the possibility of reaching a century in the series finale. With such a script set, it must be hard not to lapse into introspection and think of the legacy he will leave.
“Erm...I guess,” Read adds, following a significant pause for thought. “I want to be remembered as a great All Black, you know? That’s what I set out to do when I first made this team, it was the goal I set myself – although you don’t really make it public.
“I don’t care really what people say about me at the moment. [My reputation] will be decided later. When you’re involved in the group it’s all about how the team is going to perform, so you do your best and as much as you can to help this team win games. While you’re part of it, that’s all that matters.”
In Brodie Retallick, Ben Smith, Julian Savea and others, there are a few individuals in the current New Zealand crop who are on an irresistible course to earning this coveted moniker of ‘great All Black’. Read, a double World Cup-winner, has hit those heights already.
The eyebrows raise again at the suggestion that a victory over the Lions is the single gap on his CV. “Yeah,” he shrugs. “For any New Zealander, it’s a huge opportunity.” However, further goals remain.
“For me, I look at 2019. To go to three World Cups – and win three World Cups – motivates me, but it’s a long way off. I’m not getting any younger, so I’ll have to keep working. Those things are just outcomes, so…the Lions is next on the horizon for the All Blacks. And I can’t wait.”
Common consensus decrees that the first Test represents the Lions’ best chance of victory. As a seminal series approaches, Read would be forgiven for feeling similar nervousness and uncertainty to that which lingered a year ago. Whether the tourists can prey on it is another matter.