Those looking for clues as to how Kieran Read went from being a promising but skinny kid to one of the best rugby players in the world should start at his modest secondary school at Papakura, a working class suburb south of Auckland.
It was here at Rosehill College that Read attracted attention with his skill at both rugby and cricket. He was a very good left-handed batsman, considered good enough to be a future New Zealand representative, and it was this overall sporting talent that won him a scholarship to the prestigious St Kentigern College in Auckland, a fee-paying school constantly on the look-out for players to bolster what is always a very good first 15.
He was 14 at the time and lasted only a year before returning to his mates at Rosehill.
Read decided playing and learning with his friends was more important than playing winning rugby, an attitude which might seem at odds with his ambition and hard-nosed attitude on the training pitch and playing field, but it’s an insight into what makes the now 28-year-old tick and why he is so popular with not only his team-mates but supporters of his Crusaders franchise and indeed the All Blacks.
Tomorrow afternoon against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, watch who the All Blacks turn to for guidance. As many will look to Read as to Richie McCaw, who with 123 caps compared to his loose forward partner’s 60, is considered one of the greatest to have worn the black jersey and one of the best to have captained New Zealand.
This year, Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder, a former All Blacks captain and loose forward, called Read the best player in the world — high praise given McCaw and Dan Carter also play for the franchise. After the All Blacks’ 30-22 victory over England at Twickenham last weekend coach Steve Hansen said the expectations on Read were now as high as those placed on McCaw and Carter.
Read’s power, speed, ball skills and ability to create space for his backs — especially near the sideline — mean he is often the most dominant player on the pitch. He knows he’s good and he’s playing like it. It appears that the big No 8 has gone to the next level, a world away from his days knocking around with his mates at Rosehill.
“That [enjoyment] was certainly the reason why I went back to Rosehill, putting my mates and the environment over the team I could have played for,” Read told the NZ Herald this year.
“And it was great fun, those first-15 years were awesome. We weren’t the greatest team around but we showed up and enjoyed each other’s company.”
Read owes a debt of gratitude to a coach and sports co-ordinator at Rosehill, James Fraser, who saw the potential in him.
“He put a pretty big emphasis on me and got me coming in and doing some extra training in the mornings and talked to different guys about the mental stuff and nutrition. He invested a little bit into me, actually, and that probably set up some professionalism in me and showed what I could get out of the game.”
Read has got a bit from the game, certainly, but he has also given a fair bit back.
Like many of the All Blacks who play for the Christchurch-based Crusaders, Read was affected by the series of earthquakes which struck the city with such devastation, starting in September 2010 and continuing over the next couple of years. The worst was on February 22, 2011 when a 6.3 magnitude quake hit just after lunchtime on a Tuesday afternoon and killed 185 people.
The earthquake damaged the Crusaders’ AMI Stadium to such an extent that they couldn’t play any games there for the season and meant the World Cup of later that year would by-pass Christchurch.
Read, who was at lunch after finishing training for the morning, negotiated the cracked and buckled roads to rush home to wife Bridget and young daughter Ellie. “I tried to get home as quickly as I could but the roads were already flooded,” he explained. “I wasn’t immediately sure how big the earthquake was. It was not until I saw how much damage there was that I realised there was a lot of danger.
“I just hoped my family was at home. My wife and baby were there, thankfully, and they were pretty shaken up.”
In the dark days that followed in a city where many suburbs were without power and water, Read was at the forefront of the clean-up effort, organising a working party among his team-mates near his Richmond home.
“This is a bigger thing than footy at the moment, it was the only way to go for us, to be honest,” Read told a reporter as he worked to remove silt and debris from quake-hit properties.
“We are just wanting to help out in our community, and are doing whatever we can.”
Read’s move from Auckland to Christchurch was prompted by Munster coach Rob Penney, who was in charge of Canterbury’s academy programme at the time. Penney, known to be a fine developer of rugby talent, had a feeling the then 20-year-old Read could be something special — and so it proved.
“They were really interested in me and showed a lot of intent in seeing me come down, whereas a few different teams up north didn’t show the same amount of enthusiasm when looking at me.”
Everyone is interested in Read now, an All Blacks captain in waiting — an almost perfect No 8 — a player who will be leading his team’s charge for a perfect season on a Sunday afternoon in Dublin.
* The author is a staff writer with the New Zealand Herald
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