Taking over the All Blacks captaincy from arguably the greatest leader rugby has ever known, was always going to present Kieran Read with challenges.

The hardest of course would be to earn fair recognition amid the inevitable comparisons with Richie McCaw.

Just last week former All Black Brad Thorn gave his view that McCaw was the toughest man he ever saw play the game and that his physical bravery and mental strength were on a level few have been able to reach.

No one disagrees but the legend of McCaw – his ability to play through the World Cup in 2011 with a broken foot and then through a series against England in 2014 with a broken rib – shouldn't be the bushel under which Read's light is hidden.


The current All Blacks captain will return to Super Rugby tonight, starting at No 8 for the Crusaders and proving that he's up there with the toughest men in history.

Anyone who saw what state Read was in at the tail end of November last year would appreciate the scale of the journey he faced to return to action.

He somehow managed to play 80 minutes against a ferocious Scottish team at Murrayfield on November 18 when his back was disintegrating.

Kieran Read of the All Blacks leads the haka. Photo / Getty Images.
Kieran Read of the All Blacks leads the haka. Photo / Getty Images.

By the time he faced the media, he was shuffling, wincing even as he spoke such was his pain and a few days later in Cardiff, the bulging disc in his back was causing so many nerve issues, he was bed ridden – unable to stand or find any position of comfort.

The All Blacks coaches and medical staff were genuinely concerned. They know, because they have seen, just how tough and resilient Read is.

They saw him play through 80 minutes in the 2015 World Cup final after seriously damaging ankle ligaments in the third minute.

He was in agony, the injury was significant enough to keep him off his feet for the next four weeks, but he found a way to play through it.

Just as he found a way to be man of the match in the first test against the Lions last year, despite the fact he came into the game having not played for seven weeks.


That was the hallmark of McCaw – an ability to return from a long injury break and come straight into a test and own it.

Only the best of the best can do that. It takes depth of character and extreme resilience to be able to dig out a world class performance after not playing for so long.

In addition to that the coaches had seen how, so many times over the years, Read had come into his own in the toughest games.

Look back at the epic clash at Ellis Park in 2013 and see how hard Read was still running and how he was contributing in those oxygen-deprived last 15 minutes. Others wilted but not Read.

It was the same in Ireland later that year when the All Blacks pulled off their miracle escape. In that final try-scoring play, Read touches the ball more than any other player in the build up to Ryan Crotty's try.

And that's why there was so much concern about Read late last year. For him to be bed ridden and struggling as much as he was, it highlighted the seriousness of the injury.


But here he is now, eight months later, back with the Crusaders. It has been a long and difficult recovery and one that he was never guaranteed to make.

Not every athlete makes it back to their chosen sport after suffering the sort of injury Read did. Plenty have been forced to retire in the wake of back surgery and plenty have returned and never been the same.

Simply making it as far as he already has is a significant triumph for Read. No one should underestimate what he has endured to get back to playing – how hard he has worked to go from shuffling wreck to Crusaders starter.

And should he, as everyone hopes, push on from here back into the All Blacks through to the World Cup next year, he'll have a story every bit as compelling as the one McCaw wrote with his injury-related heroics.

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