The All Blacks' captain's passion for the game has defined his tenure, writes Gregor Paul from Tokyo.

Kieran Read has been his own man and done things his own way since he inherited the All Blacks captaincy from Richie McCaw in early 2016.

Taking over from the greatest test captain in history came with obvious, unenviable challenges, none more difficult than trying to carve out his own place in history that wasn't unfavourably obscured by the achievements of the man who led the All Blacks before him.

Entwined in that goal was a need to substantiate that while he had learned plenty about leadership from McCaw it wasn't everything.

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He was not cast in the same mould: not a clone. Respectful of the great man, similar in some respects but not an acolyte by any means.

Time has been a major ally of Read's because as the months have ticked by, it has become increasingly hard to see this current All Blacks team cast in anything other than his shadow.

The spectre of McCaw has faded, been eradicated and it is undeniably Read's team now – shaped by his inclusiveness and approachability as much as by his physical presence and standing in the world game.

[Exclusive: Captain Kieran Read to walk away from the All Blacks]
Read is a product of his environment. Growing up in the melting pot of South Auckland taught him by necessity how to be a social chameleon where he can relate to the Pacific Island boys whose childhoods were about loving aunties, roasted pigs, church and songs as easily as he can those from South Island farming stock and their meat and two veg, sensible haircuts, polished shoes and good schools fixations.

And if some have struggled to see how he differs from his predecessor there is tangible evidence now to be sure they are separate entities.

When McCaw reached this point in the corresponding World Cup cycle his longer-term future remained a mystery.

Or at least McCaw refused to reveal his post-2015 World Cup plans, not so much because he hadn't made them, but because he feared the end would start to dominate the present.

If he set himself a finish line, his concern was that he would inevitably start to mentally and physically tire as he approached it.

This is not Read's plan. He's intending to sign off as an All Black after the World Cup and use the definitive end date as a means to bring him certainty and certainty to bring him confidence.

"So for me, I think it probably won't be in New Zealand," he says of his post-2019 future. "We have always thought as a family that we would like to go overseas and use that experience for the kids. That is probably the main option at the moment.

"That [retirement] is an option as well. There are plenty of options out there but I probably want to keep playing if I can. It is the experience for the kids that will be the main thing and it has to work for us as a family."

"I hope to have it wrapped up before the start of the season because then you can give 100 per cent because you know what you will be doing."

It might even be a case of where the mind goes the body will follow because as much as Read wants to be 100 per cent mentally attuned to demands of World Cup year, so too does he want to reach his maximum physical capacity.

He's honest to admit he's not there yet. Not all of his system has rebooted since major back surgery and while he's recovered remarkably well, there is a little bit of something he hasn't been able to rekindle quite yet.

He's close, but he feels there's maybe a bit more dynamism to discover in his movement – a little more bounce in his stride to find so he can play that bit wider.

Read admits he's still not back to his best following surgery. Photo / Facebook
Read admits he's still not back to his best following surgery. Photo / Facebook

"If I am totally honest I am not back to exactly being 100 per cent physically," he says.

"I should get there hopefully next year. I am feeling really good and you can give 100 per cent on the training field and in the tests but you are maybe giving 100 per cent of not quite 100 per cent.

"It's going pretty well and I am feeling good and I am hopeful about finishing the year really well."

He's also hopeful about making a seamless and strong transition out of 2018 into 2019.

World Cup year can often be a little fraught for those who are almost certain to go. They get caught up looking too far ahead, maybe holding something back in Super Rugby which is not conducive to building form or confidence.

Read has the benefit of having been here twice before – technically three times as he played for the Crusaders in 2007 as a largely unknown 21-year-old and in hindsight probably should have been fast-tracked into the World Cup squad.

Similar, yes. But Read has proven he's no clone of Richie McCaw. Photo / Photosport
Similar, yes. But Read has proven he's no clone of Richie McCaw. Photo / Photosport

His experience of both 2011 and 2015 is telling him to keep his focus short-term and come into the year with a sensible plan that reflects he's 33, heavily dinged and determined to reach September with ample in the tank but also plenty of rugby behind him.

That means trying to get the most out of the off-season and then striking the right balance about when to start being available for the Crusaders and how much rest to have during the campaign.

The balance being not wanting his legs to be dead by the World Cup but nor to be so short of game time his instincts are slow.

"There is obviously something pretty big coming up at the end of next year which is taking the focus but I have learned from the last couple of tournaments that what helped me the most was that I just focused on the preparation I have always been through and that helped me through games.

"I'll be smart and I know the coaches at the Crusaders are smart as well I have to be focused on the bigger things as well.

"I want to be there for the back end of Super Rugby and then obviously for the World Cup. So I am sure we will have some conversations to have some time off. It is relevant as you need some time off but you also have to play some football.

"In some ways, you have to count [his back injury] it as a blessing. The body this year is feeling good. In a number of other years at this stage of the season, you are in a bit of a physical state where you are hanging on. In terms of the number of games I have played it is really healthy."

And on the subject of healthy, there is nothing more wholesome than Read's attitude which will count for much in his quest to finish next year having made an indelible mark in history.

His love of the game remains undiminished as does his joy and passion for the All Blacks and his role within the team.

These are qualities which define Read and are starting to define the team he captains.

Kieran Read has left his mark on the All Blacks. Illustration: Rod Emmerson
Kieran Read has left his mark on the All Blacks. Illustration: Rod Emmerson