WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Kieran Read spent a long time learning from Richie McCaw but he always knew he would have to do things his own way if he was to make his mark as All Blacks skipper when the time came to succeed world rugby’s most successful captain.
Along with the All Blacks coach, and New Zealand Prime Minister of course, the captain is one of the most heavily scrutinised figures in the country. Stepping into twice World Cup winner and three times World Player of the Year McCaw’s shoes brought extra attention.
When the appointment was confirmed, Read said he had served his apprenticeship under McCaw and now it was his time to lead from the front.
“I learnt a lot from Richie. ... But from now I want to be my own person,” Read told Fairfax Media last year. “I can’t try to emulate what he’s done. I’ve just got to be Kieran Read.”
Read’s first year in charge could have been a tricky one.
The retirement from international rugby of a core group of veterans after the 2015 World Cup saw more than 600 test caps’ worth of experience disappear from the team.
But instead of a post-World Cup dip in form, the All Blacks picked up where they had left off, with Read’s side, less conservative than under McCaw, thrashing their fellow southern hemisphere teams with a high-octane attacking approach.
Against Ireland in Dublin and France in Paris they also showed that when they had turn up the physicality and respond to whatever was being thrown at them, they could do that too, even if sections of the European media thought they had crossed the line.
Read has always seemed destined to become a New Zealand skipper, though not always as an All Black.
An accomplished top-order batsman, he played senior club cricket in south Auckland at 15. His maturity and ability to fit into an adult environment while still a teenager impressed many of his early coaches.
After being lured south to Christchurch, Read took a more academic look at leadership, enrolling in a sports coaching degree at the University of Canterbury.
“I like growing people and try to get that individual touch with a lot of the lads to get as much out of them as I can,” he said. “That’s how I like to lead.”
Read showed promise in rugby but took time to grow out of his cricketer’s physique.
Once describing himself as a “skinny white boy”, Read was tall and athletic with explosive speed but struggled to increase his weight above 90 kilograms, his former Canterbury coach Rob Penney told the New Zealand Herald in 2011.
”We knew he would fill out into a really robust, physical man,“ Penney said. ”(But) he wasn’t going to be someone that was going to be an overnight success because he needed the physical development and a lot of technical help as well.
“But he had the raw talent and the raw physicality that we knew, given time, could be nurtured and developed into something pretty special.”
Penney’s assessment proved correct.
A more robust Read, who now weighs 110kg, won the World Player of the Year award in 2013 and is widely considered the best number eight in the game.
He still uses his pace to great effect but he has also become a brutal defender. His thundering tackle on Australia fullback Israel Folau in the opening seconds of the 2015 World Cup final set the tone for the All Blacks in their 34-17 victory.
Read is also a primary lineout target and a key to the All Blacks’ kicking game, either from restarts or to put pressure on the opposition.
The only concern for coach Steve Hansen is whether he can get through the Lions series unscathed, having battled with concussion, ankle and knee injuries.
He barely played at all this season due to wrist surgery last year and then suffering a broken thumb a month ago.
“Captaincy aside he’s the talisman of the forwards,” former number eight Zinzan Brooke wrote in a column for allblacks.com.
”This guy brings plenty of leadership qualities and decision making. He’s seriously influential and a proper workhorse who has a bit of x-factor.
“Would I be scared if he went down at the start of this series? You bet.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford