YOU WOULD HAVE TO THINK that Richie McCaw would be a hard act to follow.
He was about Mr Perfect and for a long, long time. He was the man who could do no wrong and the man a nation came to implicitly trust as All Blacks captain.
It was hard for many supporters to let go when he retired. Many believed that the All Blacks would never be the same and that without McCaw, they would be missing something they wouldn’t be able to quite replace.
Good luck Kieran Read coming in as captain after that. Could he really be given a fair crack at the job, following in the footsteps of someone who enjoyed a 90 per cent win ratio and captained the All Blacks in more than 100 tests?
Well, it turns out that Read is a special, special player and leader himself. He joined an elite club in July when he won his 100th test cap at Eden Park in the series decider against the Lions.
Reaching that landmark is itself confirmation of his standing. It is a big achievement to win one cap for your country. To win 100 is scarcely believable and to win 100 as an All Black – that must be the toughest thing of all.
The competition within New Zealand rugby is intense. Think how many good players there are and what it takes to become recognised as the best in your respective position. And what it takes to stay there for long enough to play 100 games.
Look at the players Read has seen off over the years. He first came into the All Blacks in 2008, playing as a blindside then. At the start of 2009, All Blacks assistant coach as he was then, Steve Hansen, persuaded Read to concentrate on No 8.
Hansen saw that as Read’s long-term position – the place from which he could best utilise his all round skills. It was an astute move because as that year developed, Read usurped long-term incumbent Rodney So’oialo from the team.
Since then he’s seen the likes of Victor Vito, Thomas Waldrom, Luke Whitelock and Nasi Manu all challenge unsuccessfully to topple him.
No one in the domestic game has even come close to offering what Read has.
He’s also been able to see off all pretenders to his crown as the world’s best No 8 which he effectively took possession of in 2010.
That year Read wiped the floor with South Africa’s Pierre Spies in three tests. The big Springbok had big tickets on him, but he didn’t have Read’s crunch or drive in the nasty parts of the game. Others such as Scott Higginbotham, Wycliff Palu, Billy Vunipola, Jamie Heaslip and Taulupe Faletau have come along at various stages, but none has offered the same range of skills or consistency as Read.
He tackles harder than anyone in the world game. He has pace and leg drive to hit the line hard when he carries. He is, alongside Sam Whitelock, the world’s best lineout exponent and he can range wide and use his incredible skills to devastating effect.
The flip pass he threw in the first test against the Lions to set up Rieko Ioane’s try was miraculous and yet Read made it look so easy. The only player that has comparable skills at No 8 is Duane Vermeulen but he has been too injury-plagued to have challenged.
Going back to that first test against the Lions, Read was close to being man of the match and yet he hadn’t played for eight weeks due to a broken thumb. He’d barely played much before the broken thumb either because he had been recovering from wrist surgery.
So little rugby and such a big performance, in such a big game... there was only one other man who could do that and it was McCaw.
That was the moment really when Read established that he’s made of much the same stuff. He has the same resilience, the same confidence in his ability and the same desire to succeed and impose himself.
It was a hugely inspiring performance and one that lifted all those around him. And that is the other thing about Read, he inspires to the same extent as McCaw but perhaps with different methods.
Read, as the current All Blacks will say, is more inclusive. He’s better equipped to talk to all players in the team: more worldly perhaps as a result of growing up in the multi-cultural South Auckland where all walks of life crossed his path.
Read can adapt to being whatever the team needs, be it as a leader or as a player and he is on track to establish himself as one of the greatest players and All Blacks in history.
If he had the impossible job in following McCaw, no one seems to have told him.
Gregor Paul, Editor