LEADING THE NEXT GENERATION
KIERAN READ WON HIS 100TH CAP AGAINST THE LIONS AND WHILE THE SERIES WAS DRAWN, THE ALL BLACKS NO 8 HAS EVERYTHING HE NEEDS TO PUSH ON AND BECOME A GREAT LEADER.
I AM VERY PROUD OF OUR GUYS. THEY HUNG IN THERE AGAINST A QUALITY SIDE AND HAD A CHANCE OF WINNING THE GAME. THEY NEVER GAVE UP AND, AS A COACH, THAT IS ALL YOU CAN ASK YOUR PLAYERS TO DO WHEN YOU ARE IN THAT SORT OF SITUATION.’ STEVE HANSEN
Adding a Lions series victory to his two World Cup triumphs was what Kieran Read was hoping for. It would have come with extra special significance as Read won his 100th cap on the night the series should have been decided.
What a way to write himself into the record books as one of the All Blacks greats – captain the side to a series victory on the same night he became just the seventh New Zealander to hit the century of caps.
That would have been the way for Read to unequivocally establish himself as one the All Blacks’ most legendary figures.
But alas, it wasn’t to be. He so nearly got there, not quite. He didn’t fail, but nor did he succeed as, of course, the All Blacks drew with the Lions in the Eden Park decider and shared the series.
Shared the series..? What to make of that? How does that leave Read to be placed in history and the All Blacks judged?
Dealing with the latter first, it says a few things. The first is that in the second two tests, a relatively young and inexperienced All Blacks side made a handful of mistakes that reflected where they are in their development.
In Wellington, obviously, the All Blacks were hampered by the red card shown to Sonny Bill Williams. No complaints with the decision and no question the All Blacks showed incredible heart, courage and resilience to keep themselves in the game for as long as they did.
They had to play for 55 minutes a man down – technically it was only 45 because the Lions had a yellow card at one stage – and yet they still managed to put themselves in a position to win it. With 10 minutes left, they were well ahead, yet they could have been out of sight. They could have been home and hosed were it not for the fact they had tightened their range of vision.
Going a man down had put the All Blacks into a charge-up-the-middle mode. They were too narrow in their vision said assistant coach Ian Foster: blinkered and not aware of where the space was. The red card had put them into a mindset that was preventing them from seeing that there were still attacking opportunities despite their numerical disadvantage
“I thought we were mightily courageous,” said head coach Steve Hansen. “Did we play well? Debatable. I think we can play smarter, but we certainly showed a lot of ticker and a lot of heart.
“I am very proud of our guys. They hung in there against a quality side and had a chance of winning the game. They never gave up and, as a coach, that is all you can ask your players to do when you are in that sort of situation.
“The big thing about when you lose is that it’s painful, isn’t it? It sharpens the mind, it sharpens the attitude and you look at things probably a little deeper than you normally do.”
The All Blacks did indeed look pretty deep the following week and they turned up in Auckland resolute, focused and controlled. They had the energy and dynamism that everyone expected and their attacking game came to life.
But against a supremely good rush defence and with the stadium alive with noise and life, the All Blacks didn’t have
the clinical edge they needed. They opened up the Lions enough to get the job done, but couldn’t put them away. Their execution wasn’t good enough in the critical periods, and a few wild passes, dropped balls and poor decisions saw them tied at 15-all when the final whistle blew.
They know that they should have been out of sight by the final minute, which would have prevented the last minute controversy that saw referee Romain Poite award them a penalty and then change his mind.
“It’s a tough game to ref,” Hansen said. “We all know what happened, and we all know probably what should have happened but at the end of the day it’s a game and as little kids we’re taught to take the good with the bad and we have to do that.
“That’s all I want to talk about. We’re accepting of whatever decisions were made. Whether we agree with them or not, that’s something we’ll talk to the referees about.
“It has been a wonderful advertisement for rugby,” he said. “A few things haven’t gone our way with injuries and other things but the boys didn’t quibble.
“We didn’t score the points when we created the opportunities. We always said we would come out of the series having learned something about ourselves and we have.
“Tribute to the Lions. Their defence is built on the edge. They came with a lot of linespeed. There is a lot of pressure and we didn’t cope the way we wanted.”
So what the All Blacks learned is that they have to be prepared for a bit of pain as they rebuild their experience. Maybe that bit has been missed – just how many new, younger, inexperienced players were involved against the Lions.
They went into the series with no Dane Coles and lost Ben Smith 25 minutes into the first test, as well as Ryan Crotty and Williams was ruled out of the third with suspension. In the third test they had Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett in their backline – both making just their second test appearances, with the former playing alongside Anton Lienert-Brown, himself only 22 and a relative baby in terms of experience as well, despite his composure and obvious talents.
This team aren’t in rebuilding mode but they are evolving. They are blooding new players and collectively their exposure to test football is lighter than it has been for some time.
The team that won the World Cup had more than 1000 caps. They had centurions scattered throughout and the majority of the team had been together for a long, long time. So much of what they did had been learned over an extraordinarily long period and, most importantly, it had been learned through a few rough periods, defeats and poor performances.
No team simply arrives on the world stage with the collective and individual experiences needed to stay calm and composed the way the 2015 champion All Blacks did.
WE DIDN’T SCORE THE POINTS WHEN WE CREATED THE OPPORTUNITIES. WE ALWAYS SAID WE WOULD COME OUT OF THE SERIES HAVING LEARNED SOMETHING ABOUT OURSELVES AND WE HAVE.’ STEVE HANSEN
There has to be a journey and the All Blacks of 2017 are starting out on theirs. That’s what they learned about themselves and that’s what their support base is going to have to realise.
This may be a different sort of year to the last five. The All Blacks may not finish the year with a 90 per cent win ratio. There might be more defeats along the way, certainly more sticky moments as they go through the unavoidable process of learning from experience.
“What’s been really positive for us is that we have introduced two 20-year-olds and another couple of young backs, and I thought we played some positive rugby in the third test,” said Hansen.
“From a long term perspective it has been good for us because it has put us under a bit of pressure and adversity and we have to deal with that mentally as a group. There are plenty of positives.”
Getting a handle on what to make of Read by the end of the Lions series is much easier. There is no ambiguity or confusion, largely because he’s already done so much since 2008 to show what he is all about.
There’s never been any doubt that Read has a lump of granite inside him. The man is tough to the core, resilient, driven and exactly the sort of squarejawed hero comic books would depict as the All Blacks captain.
And mostly, these are the key requirements of the job he now holds. Captaincy, for the All Blacks at least, is 90 per cent about performance. It is about being able to inspire others with relentless excellence.
The core component of the job is to be the best player and tied in with that, to be the hardest worker.
There haven’t been many tests since he made his debut in 2008 when Read hasn’t ticked all those boxes. For most of his career there was another bloke called Richie McCaw playing alongside him who was the captain and made it hard to see, through his relentless excellence, just how close Read was to emulating him.
They were two peas in a pod Read and McCaw: two great players, two great leaders and since 2016 when the former stepped into the breach full time, that much is becoming clearer.
It is also becoming clear that as much as they are similar, so too are they different. What binds them is their desire, commitment and toughness. Read also shares that same conviction that things should never be about him. The team has come to first. Just like when McCaw won his 100th cap, Read didn’t want a big fuss. He didn’t want to deviate from his usual preparation or have a media fuss on his hands.
When he did front questions, he avoided dwelling on much. He avoided talking about himself. Asked if he ever imagined on the day he won his first cap at Murrayfield if he thought he’d go on to win 100, he said: “As a kid you just want to play for the All Blacks. That was the dream and it’s pretty awesome to be living the reality right now.
“It’s a pretty cool place to be, mate. I didn’t expect to be in this position. The biggest thing for me is to do my bit and help the team and get the win.”
That single-minded refusal to get ahead of himself, to believe he has cracked something or is better than he is, has been a huge factor in Read making it to 100 caps.
To get that far says plenty about his attitude, hard work, discipline and resilience. McCaw, playing in one of the most physically brutal positions of all, managed a 15-year career. Not only that, he was rarely injured.
Read is much the same. He’s in his tenth test season and with a couple of years left in his contract, he’s tracking towards the same sort of longevity as his predecessor.
And there are reasons for that. It would seem that avoiding injury is all about luck, but it’s mostly not.
In 10 years Read has barely been injured and that’s because he dedicates himself to the micro as well as the macro requirements. His physical preparation is detailed, punishing and total.
How else could he miss eight weeks of rugby with a broken thumb and then return straight into test football and deliver a huge performance against the Lions in the first test.
As much as that showed the depth of his character to dig
out 75 minutes when his lungs would have been sucking in fire, it also confirmed how meticulous and committed he had been during his rehabilitation.
But that should be where the comparisons with McCaw end. They are close, still friendly, still hugely respectful of another, but they are not the same people.
Read is from South Auckland and maybe as a result, he has greater social breadth. He’s been exposed to more walks of life than McCaw, is perhaps more able to mix with all of his team.
He is more inclusive say his teammates. More open, better able to connect on a personal level and has the ability to relate to Rieko Ioane as well as he can Owen Franks. Possibly that will follow him on to the field and enable him to find the calming words to keep his young team task focused and disciplined.
“He obviously has big shoes to fill...the previous captain was a pretty good one,” says All Blacks teammate Aaron Cruden.
“The thing that the boys really admire about Reado is that he has made that role his own. He hasn’t tried to be anyone else. He knows exactly who he is and what he stands for and you can see that in the way he plays and conducts himself around the environment.
“From a leader, that is exactly what you want. You want a guy who is going to put his body on the line and lift the standards.”
If there is one distinct area where Read has some way to reach the standards of McCaw, it is in his referee management.
Read has 90 per cent of his job nailed down but the missing piece perhaps is that magical gift of building a strong enough rapport with officials to limit their influence.
It was an art that McCaw took some time to master and one that Read will be wary of staying on top of. The Lions series tested him in that regard.
Read might feel in hindsight that in the second test referee Jérôme Garcès closed himself off and became a little hurried to make decisions. Perhaps Read could have said more, done more, to express the All Blacks’ frustration at the stream of penalties conceded by the Lions.
In the third test, he did try to persuade Romain Poite that there is no such thing as an accidental offside. It’s maybe silly to imagine Read could have talked Poite out of his random, ill-founded decision to reverse that last minute penalty, but then again Lions captain Sam Warburton managed to have enough influence to persuade the Frenchman to at least go to the TMO for advice.
It’s a difficult skill managing referees. Say too much and it runs the risk of putting the referee’s back up, don’t say enough and the game can flow in an undesirable direction.
It’s especially difficult for an All Blacks captain to know where the line is. Individual referees will have different views on whether the captain of the world’s best team should be paid due respect or kept at arm’s length to prevent any sense of favouritism.
Given the increasing speed and intensity of test rugby is continually pressuring the inadequacy of the rules, managing referees will remain a significant part of Read’s job.
How well he does it will go some way towards defining his captaincy. He is now at the helm of a team that is definitely his and not one he inherited from McCaw.
There are so many new, young faces involved now that Read has the chance to shape and influence in the same way McCaw did when his team became his and not Tana Umaga’s in 2008.
He has everything he needs. He has the game, the experience and the force of personality to put the sting of a drawn Lions series behind him and advance this All Blacks side to great feats.
AS A KID YOU JUST WANT TO PLAY FOR THE ALL BLACKS. THAT WAS THE DREAM AND IT’S PRETTY AWESOME TO BE LIVING THE REALITY RIGHT NOW.’ KIERAN READ
KIERAN READ and his son Reuben.
[ABOVE TOP] HIGH FLYER Read has long been one of the All Blacks’ best performers.
[ABOVE] FIRST DAY Read made his debut against Scotland in 2008.
[RIGHT] GOOD MATES Read and Richie McCaw remain close.
RATE OF RETURN Read made an amazing comeback after eight weeks off.