All Blacks: Read has a monopoly at No 8

Judged the best player in the world, Kieran Read tells Campbell Burnes he still has plenty to learn in rugby

Kieran Read continues to search for ways to enhance his role at No 8 for the Crusaders and All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images
Kieran Read continues to search for ways to enhance his role at No 8 for the Crusaders and All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images

In 2009, the All Blacks were involved in the launch of a collectors' item - a charity edition of Monopoly which, instead of iconic properties in London, used All Black players as valuable commodities.

Kieran Read was an All Black greenhorn then; he was making the transition from solid blindside flanker to top quality No 8 and could be 'purchased' for just $60 of Monopoly money. He was the All Black equivalent of low-rent Old Kent Road.

Fast forward to 2014 and Read is now fit to rank at least alongside Richie McCaw as the Park Lane (or even Mayfair) of the All Blacks. You'd need $400 to purchase him on the Monopoly board and the New Zealand Rugby Union has outlaid some generous (real) dosh to tie up the 28-year-old until the end of the 2017 season. That's because his value to the team and union is now inestimable and not just because there are few other genuine No 8 contenders.

He has just claimed his second Kelvin R Tremain Memorial Trophy as the country's top player (after 2010) and his first IRB Player of the Year gong.

He can rightfully call himself the best player on the planet and few would quibble - unlike the 2009 award when Fourie du Preez somehow did not take the honour (McCaw did). Read is up for Sportsman of the Year at the Halbergs. Don't hold your breath. But he would merit it.

Read is getting used to all the adulation but remains understated, modest and with a quiet determination to which Kiwis can relate. They recall him helping out with a wheelbarrow in the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Hardcore rugby fans may more readily recall the Read who, seemingly every weekend last season, specialised in charging runs and subtle final passes, soaring lineout takes and crunching tackles. There was scarcely any let-up, though he was guilty of butterfingers in one of the June tests against France and was relatively quiet in the final, nail-biting climax, against Ireland.

One of his few slip-ups of 2013 was humorous. Asked at the Steinlager Rugby Awards if there was anything he hadn't done in the season, Read quipped that he hadn't yet got his wife pregnant.

Read hit the treadmill after Christmas, relaxed with family and watched some cricket - but there's no need for him (or McCaw) to suit up for the Crusaders until round one of Super Rugby on February 21.

There is a niggle at the back of his mind, though, centering around the fact that the All Blacks have been dominant for over four years and yet the Crusaders have not won Super Rugby since 2008.

"It's a tough competition, and probably winning it in my second year when I was still quite young [22], you don't realise how much work goes into winning these titles. So you've got to be consistent over the whole year. That's what has let us down in the past - we've made finals but scraped in and been away in the crucial semifinal or final.

"That's why the Chiefs have done so well in the last two years, their consistency through the season, to host the final. We've got to keep working on it, and I would love to win another title," he says.

Unlike the likes of Israel Dagg and Dan Carter, who have sometimes appeared to cruise (or try too hard) at times before May, Read takes pride in fronting from the get-go. Exhibit A is the Blues-Crusaders clash at Eden Park last season, where the home side overwhelmed the visitors 34-15. Read was clearly the best player for the vanquished.

He takes special pride in going at full throttle in every outing: "That's just the way I am but, if you're out there playing, you have to be giving it 100 per cent. If you play well early, then you will reap the benefit later in the year, and it benefits the franchise. I love playing for the Crusaders, so it's not too hard to get up for those games and leading the team as well makes you really on song and doing what you need to be doing."

He played at No 6 in that 2008 champion Crusaders side under Robbie Deans but doesn't believe the former Wallabies coach will return to coach in New Zealand in the near future.

"I think he's certainly got the heart and ability for it. I saw him pre-Christmas at that cricket game. To me, I think it's just about him getting away from this part of the world, I'm guessing, at this time. It would be hard for him now, but he's still relatively young."

So expect Read at full throttle from February to November, even if he is looking at close to 30 games. Injury is the bane of every sportsman but Read has largely escaped long lay-offs thus far.

His only lengthy absence from the All Blacks was at the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The All Blacks kept a spot open for him and that proved justified when he was the best forward in the final.

Maintaining that form and fitness has allowed him to play 61 tests in just five years and all he needs to do is hold that form until at least the next Rugby World Cup and arguments about whether 'Buck' Shelford or Zinzan Brooke were better No 8s will be redundant.

The best rugby the All Blacks played last year was during the Rugby Championship and, not coincidentally, that showcased Read's richest vein of form, notably in the epic win at Ellis Park. He scored six test tries in two months.

But there is no way Read thinks he just needs to turn up to maintain playing like the best in the world. He and the team are always searching for more.

"I guess it's trying to find that complete game," he says. "I'm getting the gist of that No 8 position and really trying to make it my own and taking it forward.

"There are different things in the position that you can get better at, obviously around the back of the scrum, but being that player who can link with the backs, which I feel is a big part of the game - it's something I can continually grow and expand the role of what No8s do.

"It's hard for the team to be at their best in every game. We showed patches of what we were capable of. We've got to get our head around being prepared to play at our highest level and that's where we can take our game further.

"There's certainly a lot of room to improve. We took a step forward in the way we play the game but maybe other teams will see that and catch up pretty quickly, so it's about doing it better and evolving."

While there is an abundant supply of blindside talent in New Zealand, there are few candidates to challenge Read for his No 8 position. Luke Whitelock seems to be the anointed one, and Read speaks highly of his Crusaders colleague, but Victor Vito may rise again, if he replicates his 2013 ITM Cup form higher up.

Read has no pebbles under the towel from such a stellar season - but no one gets as good as he is suddenly. He has been the best No8 in world rugby since he owned Pierre Spies at Eden Park in 2010 - but he had already shown his class in the 2009 Marseille French demolition.

Even at that point he had rendered his Monopoly rating obsolete.

- Herald on Sunday

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