As he prepares for the visit of the Lions and his 100th Test, we find out what makes All Blacks captain Kieran Read tick both on and off the pitch. This interview first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Rugby World magazine.
LIONS AND tigers. Both are prevalent for Kieran Read life right now. The first is obvious – the best players from Britain and Ireland head to New Zealand in a few weeks’ time for a ten-match tour that includes three Tests against the All Blacks, now led by Read – but the second is not so.
Don’t worry, you haven’t missed another team being added to the Super Rugby roster with the moniker ‘Tigers’. In fact, this has nothing to do with rugby at all and is more focused on his family life.
Read and his wife Bridget welcomed a son, Reuben, in January, a brother for their daughters Elle, six, and Eden, four. As well as bouncing on the trampoline and going on the swings, it transpires that the girls love play-acting – and like to get their dad involved too.
“I have to be a prince all the time,” explains Read. “And Eden likes to play tiger families so we walk around the house on all fours – she’s the baby tiger and I’m the daddy tiger. If I don’t do it right, they’re my biggest critics! I love being a dad. My girls are great fun and keep me completely grounded.”
Read recognises the importance of family time, not least because it allows him to escape the pressures of elite rugby in general and captaining the All Blacks in particular. His daughters are more interested in the anthems and the haka than the minutiae of Test rugby, so time at home, which he enjoyed more of at the start of this year as he recovered from wrist surgery before returning to action last month, is the perfect way to switch off.
“For me, probably the hardest thing is to step out and relax – you can focus too much on footy,” admits the 31-year-old No 8. “I just try to take my mind off the All Blacks and things like that. I’ve had to really focus on that but it’s key.
“I’m lucky I’ve got a wife and kids to take my mind off things pretty quickly. When you’re away so much, it’s always great to come home and relax with the family. We don’t watch rugby at home and don’t talk about rugby; I just switch off, which is quite cool.”
It will be hard for Read to switch off from rugby at all in June and July, however. The British & Irish Lions are coming to town and that will dominate life in New Zealand for six weeks.
Read was out of the country for the 2005 tour, when the All Blacks took Clive Woodward’s side to the cleaners (or insert any other cliche for a thrashing here). He was in Argentina with the New Zealand U21 side and only caught the highlights, but they were enough to be able to namecheck Dan Carter for his “pretty special performances” in that series. Twelve years on, however, he is fully aware of the building excitement.“I missed the whole vibe in 2005, what it meant to Kiwis and New Zealand,” he remembers. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a player to be involved and it’s going to be huge, massive.”
So what is he expecting from a Lions squad that includes several members of the Ireland side that inflicted a first defeat on Read as All Blacks captain last autumn? “The Lions are putting the best of the best together and they will be capable of playing an open brand of rugby. The style of play in the northern hemisphere has been really positive, and traditionally they back their forwards and their defence.
“We only experienced playing against the Irish (last autumn) but they played a good style and put a lot of pressure on us by holding onto the ball. England are at a great level at the moment and have been going really well. It’s a big challenge for us.”
It was thought that 2016 would be a ‘transition year’ for the All Blacks. A raft of experienced players had left for pastures new after winning the World Cup, the likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith either retiring or heading to France. Yet the predicted struggles never materialised. They lost only one of their 14 games – to Ireland in Chicago – and players already familiar with the set-up filled the holes. For example, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett filled the No 10 shirt while Sam Cane, who has captained the All Blacks, was picked at openside. A few new faces did come in too – there were 11 New Zealand debutants in 2016 but only two of those were in the starting XV for their first Test. Steve Hansen and his back-room team had clearly prepared for this eventuality and had done so, as the Kiwis do with so many things, superbly.
“If you’d told me at the start of the year we’d lose only one Test, I’d have taken that and been very happy with it,” says Read. “To be a rebuilding year, I’m pretty happy with how that went. We’re lucky we planned it. With all the experience we lost, we had guys who were gradually introduced into the squad.
“The other thing is we have a great squad. There are guys with potential who are not playing Tests every week but they’re all capable of starting for a lot of other teams. That pushes us during the week to train harder. The expectation is when you come into the All Blacks you raise your game; you’re not allowed to come in and sit where you are. When young guys come in and perform, you’re on track. It’s a great culture.”
It’s a successful culture, too. Back-to-back World Cups, 18 consecutive Test wins before that defeat by Ireland, unbeaten at Eden Park since 1994, 47 of the 50 best win percentages in Test history (for those playing at least 20 games) recorded by New Zealand players… the All Blacks set the standard in rugby.
And Read sets high standards for himself, both as a captain – a role he took on full-time last year following McCaw’s retirement – and as a player.Read is regarded not only as one of the world’s best No 8s but one of the world’s best players, full stop. In fact, Stuart Barnes waxed lyrical about his abilities in this magazine last year, ranking only Aaron Smith above him and saying: “He has taken forwards’ offloading to unseen levels. In recent years, what Read has conjured between the five-metre line and touchline is little short of magical.”
His handling is hugely impressive, which is why the All Blacks so often position him in the wide channels (find out more about that attacking tactic over the page). If he doesn’t get over the line himself, more often than not he is able to deliver the pinpoint pass for a team-mate to cross. Yet – and this is a warning for Warren Gatland – Read feels he didn’t contribute enough in attack in 2016 and is eager to get more involved this year.
FOR THE LATEST SUBSCRIPTION OFFERS, CLICK HERE
“I’d love to get my hands on the ball more again and showcase a bit more attacking flair. That’s a big part of my game. Last year I was working hard in different areas, like defence, and it’s about getting opportunities and finding room to get in those positions. I’ve been working quite hard with Ian Foster (All Blacks assistant coach) on that. As a No 8, you always want to be a master of all trades and make sure you have a consistent game.”
As for leadership, Read says he “enjoys the challenge of captaining this team” and, while learning a lot from McCaw, he does things his way now he’s in the role. There is also an individual milestone on the horizon. If all goes to plan, Read will win his 100th cap in the third Test against the Lions at Eden Park on 8 July, becoming the seventh All Black to hit three figures. He’s aware of the significance of the achievement but is not thinking of ending things there – the 2019 World Cup is firmly in his sights.
“I always wanted to be a great All Black, but I never thought about playing 100 Tests. When I started no one had played 100 times for the All Blacks so I didn’t really think of it at all. When I think back to my first Test and my 50th, they were extra special. It will be a cool day and a great honour for myself and my family, but the one thing you remember is the result. I’d get rid of all the games to win the (Lions) series. It’s more important to win for the All Blacks than for myself.”
So does he see himself overtaking McCaw’s world record of 148 caps? “It’s probably out of my reach! All going well, I hope to be around until the next World Cup. I want to keep contributing and making sure the team move forward. I want to continue to improve as a player and a person and see this team get better. We have a great tradition of leaving the team in a better place than when we came in. That’s essentially our motivation as a group. Whenever we play, it’s our chance to make our legacy as best as we can.”
Talk of legacy then turns to Read’s own heroes and one particular moment has stuck with him since he was a child. Michael Jones, the All Black great, handed out prizes at Read’s local club, Drury, south of Auckland, when he was seven or eight. Read, of course, won a trophy, had his photo taken with Jones and says: “I remember being in awe of how kind he was. I’ve always remembered that and try to use that as an All Black now. It makes you realise the reach you have, especially with children, and you want to be as positive as you can.”
Whether he is playing against Lions or playing a tiger, Kieran Read is inspiring children across the country and close to home.