WELLINGTON (Reuters) - All Blacks captain Kieran Read will make his long-awaited return to the field on Friday as the Canterbury Crusaders face the Wellington Hurricanes in a Super Rugby clash that could go a long way in deciding the New Zealand conference title.
The 33-year-old Read has not played since the All Blacks’ end-of-season tour last year and was one of the senior international players given an extended break in the off-season with an eye on the Rugby World Cup in Japan later this year.
“Can’t wait,” Read told reporters in Christchurch. “I feel like I’m in as good nick as I’ve been in my career.
“It was the aim this year, it’s what the off-season was about. I’m very thankful to have had the time. Right now, it’s time to get out there and do it on the field.”
The Crusaders head the Super Rugby standings on 19 points despite suffering their first loss in more than a year last week in Sydney, when they were beaten 20-12 by the New South Wales Waratahs.
The loss was particularly tough for Scott Robertson’s side, coming just eight days after the March 15 shooting at two mosques in their home town of Christchurch killed 50 people.
“We were desperate last week but we were pretty inaccurate a lot of times at key moments,” Robertson told reporters on Wednesday. “That’s our focus, we made sure we were really clear on what we needed to get better at.”
Read’s fellow All Blacks Richie Mo’unga and Scott Barrett have also returned to the Crusaders side after they missed the loss in Sydney as part of the national team’s player management protocols.
“It means a lot,” Robertson said of Read’s return. “Obviously his experience, his ability to play well in big games. His calm head, and ability to help out as a captain and leader.”
The loss last week allowed the Hurricanes to join the Crusaders on 19 points although John Plumtree’s side are second in the New Zealand conference on points differential.
The Hurricanes’ only loss this season was to the Crusaders in Christchurch on Feb. 23, when they were totally blown away by the rampant nine-times champions, who raced out to a 31-0 lead shortly after halftime before winning 38-22.
“There’s always the anticipation around it from the players and the public,” Robertson said of the Hurricanes v Crusaders matches. “They’re always pretty brutal and results have gone both ways over the years.
“It’s a great date on the calendar and something to look forward to.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by xxxxxxx