Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

The Big Read: The kingdom finally belongs to Kieran

New captain is smart enough to know he won't survive as a McCaw carbon copy, writes Gregor Paul.

It's no doubt been a contradictory week for Kieran Read. So much will have been familiar, so much will have felt new. He's captained the All Blacks nine times, yet he's never been captain, and as he says, his previous experience provides a source of reference, which fluctuates between invaluable and worthless.

Read is no longer borrowing the keys to the kingdom - the kingdom is his and it's one that was so well governed for the last 10 years, that it may appear to some that he faces a near impossible task in having to succeed Richie McCaw.

Evidently, he doesn't think so. The benefit of having shadowed McCaw for so long is that Read has been afforded the ultimate education in leadership and professionalism.

He's also been smart enough to know that as much as he has learned, he can't package himself up as an extension of McCaw and sell himself to the troops as a carbon copy.

The All Blacks have built their cohesion and shared sense of purpose on a culture of honesty. At the foundation is players being comfortable and accepting of who they are and for Read to successfully lead, he has to be the one who is most obviously authentic and true to himself.

If there is one area where he won't differ from McCaw, it is in his conviction that to effectively lead, he has to play at or close to his potential.

There are complex reasons why some men make better leaders than others, but there's a unifying factor in rugby that links all the great captains - Martin Johnson, John Eales, Brian O'Driscoll and McCaw - which is that they were also great players. Read, already having been crowned World Rugby Player of the Year, can hold his own in that company.

Performance is going to be the biggest part of his captaincy offering. He's clear about that. To inspire those around him, to get them to buy into him as a leader, Read has to play well. He has to, in fact, be the best player in each test - just as McCaw aspired to be and usually was.

Kieran Read at the end of the All Blacks first training session. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Kieran Read at the end of the All Blacks first training session. Photo / Brett Phibbs

That much has been in his head long before he was anointed captain in February. And that's why he's carefully managed himself in the past four months to build his game, week-by-week, to the point where he's starting to look close to the same player he was in 2013.

"I thought he played really well leading into the test series," said All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. "He's pretty excited and when he's like that, you start to really see all the skills he's got. He's a physical man with and without the ball so expecting to see that on Saturday night."

When Read is at his best, his game varies from brutal defence, to lineout steals to outrageous passes. He's got it all and his performance at Eden Park will be the best indication of his level of confidence about his new role. He'll want his captaincy to start with how he plays and the specifics of his craft will flow from there.

"He has been waiting and waiting patiently," says Hansen. "He's been a very good lieutenant for Rich [McCaw] and done a great job in supporting him. And now it is his turn to set up and I think the old adage if you are going to be a leader you have to play well rings true with him and I think you will see him play very well.

"He's motivated to do that and he's got his own style which he's slowly building into. He's not the finished article by any stretch of the imagination but no captain is ... you learn as you go. It is a little bit like being a coach, you are always learning and trying to develop and as long as he is flexible in his thinking that will happen. There will be some bumps along the way for him and the team and we will deal with those."

All Black captain Kieran Read speaks to the team during the New Zealand All Blacks Captain's Run at Eden Park. Photo / Getty Images
All Black captain Kieran Read speaks to the team during the New Zealand All Blacks Captain's Run at Eden Park. Photo / Getty Images

The biggest challenges for Read will be making a quick and effective connection with the other key drivers in the team. This was one of McCaw's little understood strengths - he had open channels of communication with the likes of Daniel Carter, Conrad Smith and Ben Smith feeding into him what they were seeing on the field.

Read is going to have to be able to do the same: be confident in the heat of the battle to listen and trust those around him such as Dane Coles, Aaron Cruden and Malakai Fekitoa and then process what he's hearing. That's partly what Hansen means by flexible thinking - the ability to adapt and react to information that is not necessarily what was expected.

That's what dealing with pressure means - it is the art of finding solutions to problems. That means the All Blacks need to be capable of adapting as the game unfolds.

It's a hard craft to learn, but in his nine previous tests in charge, Read showed a depth of tactical awareness and a strong intuition about when to take risks and when to hold back.

At Eden Park yesterday, he seemed relaxed and already had a good handle on what lay ahead.

"Yeah it does," said Read, when asked if it felt a little different to be the captain proper instead of the stand-in. "The whole group feels a little different naturally. But we know what is ahead of us. It is going to be won by inches.

"I think it is going to be key for us that we don't try too hard too early. The nature of test matches is that they are abrasive and they will bring a lot of line speed. If we just try to make things happen it might not come off. We will be smart, you have to be in this game, but we don't want to stifle what we have in this team either."

- NZ Herald

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