Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Read's absence leaves giant boots to fill

Victor Vito is shaping as a solid option for the All Blacks at No 8 in Kieran Read’s absence. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Victor Vito is shaping as a solid option for the All Blacks at No 8 in Kieran Read’s absence. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It's always upwards and onwards in test football which is why Kieran Read's absence from the opening test is being treated in a typically stoic manner by the All Blacks.

Call it a drama and watch the confidence be sucked out of New Zealand and miraculously transferred to an England side who will find hope in almost anything.

But the truth is, Read's absence is a significant blow for the All Blacks. His skill-set; his contribution; his influence can't actually be replaced. Jerome Kaino is most likely going to be asked to step in, and while he'll bring his destructive brand of explosive defence and thunder through a few tackles, he is not a like-for-like replacement. And that's where the problem lies.

Read's statistics from last year tell the story of his ability to influence the All Blacks' game-plan. He ran for more than 500 metres last year - only three outside backs bettered that. He posted the highest tackle count with more than 130 and his lineout stats, cleanout numbers and turnovers were all near the best recorded.

No one can really pretend he'll be easy to replace on Saturday. The All Blacks were so effective last year when they were able to position Read second man from the touchline and have him use his pace, power and off-loading skills to deadly effect.

Kaino, or Victor Vito should he get the nod, might struggle to have that same impact in that channel. Or if they can, it will most probably be at the expense of grafting closer to the ruck - an area where Read was equally important and influential.

If there is a positive in this - a real one - it is the opportunity to gain clarity on the options behind Read at No 8. Coach Steve Hansen said late last year that it was one of the only areas where the All Blacks didn't have depth, or an obvious pecking order.

Luke Whitelock toured Europe last year as the understudy but didn't win a ringing endorsement for his contribution. Vito was out of favour and Kaino was still in Japan, no one certain what shape he'd be in when he returned.

Vito and Kaino have at least presented as the obvious alternatives and perhaps both will see game time.

Kaino is a natural blindside but his Super Rugby form has been strong enough that the All Blacks coaches will be intrigued to see whether his abrasive game can be adapted to work at No 8.

The fact Read trained yesterday is a positive sign that he'll be declared fit to play in the second test.

- NZ Herald

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Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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