New All Blacks captain 'inspiring' against Wales

6:00 am on 13 June 2016

OPINION: There was a strong school of thought that Kieran Read really didn't deserve his spot in the All Blacks by the end of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Kieran Read

Kieran Read Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Critics said the big No 8 was suffering from the after-effects of several bouts of concussion and was struggling to catch the ball. He was there because of his reputation, and because he was part of the senior old boys' network.

Then after the World Cup, All Black coach Steve Hansen immediately anointed Read as his 2016 captain. More furrowed eyebrows.

There was no doubt Read was popular with players and was an inspiring on-field leader, but did he deserve his place in the team? That has always been the non-negotiable prerequisite for an All Black captain.

Read, who is fast approaching 31, has great credentials as a rugby player and a leader. He was head boy at Auckland's Rosehill College and as a youngster it was debatable if he showed more promise at rugby or cricket. Cricket experts are adamant he was a good enough batsman to have made the Black Caps - he played cricket for New Zealand at under-17 level.

But rugby it was, and he rose quickly. He was lured south by Canterbury and was playing in the NPC in 2006 and for the Crusaders in 2007.

A year later he made his All Blacks debut and by 2009 he had supplanted Rodney So'oialo as the team's first-string No 8.

Kieran Read tackled by Gareth Anscombe.

Kieran Read tackled by Gareth Anscombe. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

With his physicality, pace and ball skills he was a great loose forward - he has now scored more test tries than even Zinzan Brooke.

But going into 2016, there were lingering doubts. Sure he'd won two World Cups, but had his time passed?

He had a good Super Rugby season for the Crusaders and his play returned to closer to the level of 2013, when he was the International Rugby Board's Player of the Year.

And it became clear how much Hansen needed him in the All Blacks mix. Losing Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu and Tony Woodcock after last year's World Cup left a huge hole in what is known in today's management-speak as the "leadership group".

The All Blacks forged ahead of Wales, after trailing 21-18 after an hour and then Read popped up with the match-winning try.

The All Blacks forged ahead of Wales, after trailing 21-18 after an hour and then Read popped up with the match-winning try. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Read had history on his side when he led the All Blacks on to Eden Park against Wales. He'd already captained the All Blacks nine times when deputising for McCaw, including wins over France and South Africa at Eden Park.

More, the All Blacks hadn't lost a test at Eden Park since 1986 and hadn't lost to Wales since 1953(!).

Still, there were lingering doubts. Wales looked really good at the 2015 World Cup until hit by a freakish number of injuries. This was a newish-looking All Blacks team. And Wales were coached by a New Zealander, Warren Gatland, who would love nothing more than to create history with a shock win.

The All Blacks trailed 21-18 after an hour and Wales were playing with irrepressible enthusiasm and no little skill.

That's when Read really earned his pay. There was no panic in the All Black camp, just ruthless efficiency. Read was inspiring, competing well in the lineouts and tackling superbly. The All Blacks forged ahead and then Read popped up with the match-winning try.

The All Blacks reputation was secure and New Zealand rugby fans, notoriously hard to please, knew there was a genuinely deserving skipper to fill Richie's boots.

* Joseph Romanos is a long-time sports journalist and broadcaster, and the author of nearly 50 books.

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