As the Crusaders, um, crusaded through to the semi-finals of the 2012 Super Rugby competition last weekend against the Bulls they looked very much like title contenders.
After grinding out a win on the back of some confusing refereeing decisions against the Chiefs two weeks earlier, and having the lowly Force in their last competition round, it wasn’t clear whether the seven time champs did have a genuine shot at the title. But the Bulls game showed the big red machine is in full post-season swing.
What was particularly interesting was that the physical game plan they knew they would have to employ against the massive Bulls pack was executed like clock work – without their most physically dominant player, Keiran Read.
A well-run outfit like the Crusaders is expected to deliver these sort of results, even when the top guys are out, such is their depth and professionalism. But Read has risen to the top of his game so much over the last couple of seasons that his impact is on par with the likes of Carter and McCaw at both Super Rugby and international level. Jerome Kaino was rightly hailed as one of the key contributors to the All Blacks success in the World Cup, but Read played a major part too. It was the brutal six/eight combination of Kaino and Read that nullified the likes of Pocock and Dusautoir, and both his work ethic and his commitment undoubtedly inspire those around him.
Read’s athleticism in the air has made him an attacking weapon in line outs, especially when his side is kicking off, and while New Zealand is rife with athletic talent in the loose Read opitimises the type of player the All Blacks love to have on board. While he lacked the flair and open field skills that players like Victor Vito and Liam Messam possess, his huge work rate at the break down and ability to play to a coaches game plan made him the first choice early in his All Black career, when players like So’ioalo and Messam were already more established.
In the time since his All Black debut against Scotland in 2008 on the end of year tour he has grown into the premier number 8 in world rugby. Others such as Pierre Spies and Scott Higgenbotham look to be more naturally gifted, but by building his game continually over a period of time and being willing to learn, adapt and evolve, Read has shaped himself into a complete player, dominant with ball in hand as well as on defense.
The inaugural Rugby Championship will be the real proving ground for Read, and a number of other All Blacks. Every team, including Argentina, boasts some imposing loose forwards, and the re-vamped tournament will provide the ideal stage for Read to stake his claim. But if his career continues on the course it is currently tracking, Read is odds-on to Captain the All Blacks and enjoy an illustrious career.