Sensational skipper leads way for All Blacks
Two quite contrasting acts put the exclamation points on Kieran Read's 50th test and underlined why the next 50 are as inevitable as night following day, or the hard-nosed Cantab putting team goals before individual glory.
Read, in just his second home test as skipper of this new generation All Blacks, was, as the French would say, tres magnifique. He produced one exquisite 50-metre run from his own line midway through the first half that showcased his exhilarating raw power and pure skill, and also sucked up a debilitating blow to his lower back just before halftime to see out an emphatic 30-0 line-in-the-sand performance from the New Zealanders.
Not only did this three-try Saturday night shutout of the French seal the series, and Dave Gallaher Cup, with a test still to go, but it reaffirmed that coach Steve Hansen is heading down the right track as he looks to evolve his 2011 World Cup winners into a squad capable of claiming their first global crown on foreign soil.
And having Read as his leader, and tone-setter, is a big part of that. Richie McCaw will return sooner rather than later and may indeed find the motivation, mindset and bodily co-operation to allow him to continue as captain.
But it's Read who is at the peak of his physical powers and Read who will be the supreme figure in the All Blacks for the remainder of this World Cup cycle. Whether or not the big No 8 has the (c) beside his name or not, he will be the man setting the standards as the All Blacks look to shake the final World Cup monkey off their backs.
Naturally Read was less pleased about marking his own milestone in style at AMI Stadium than he was his team setting a performance standard they could be proud of on the occasion of the All Blacks' 500th test match.
"For me it's about the cause," he said afterwards. "You're going to remember your 50th and it's nice to have a win but I think it's important for this group to do what we did tonight and it's great to be a part of it.
"We'll just keep looking to improve. I'm really happy with the way we stuck at it, our attitude and the way we put things together."
Asked if the All Blacks had set down a marker with their stand early in the second half when they soaked up 19 phases of furious French attack, won possession off a charged-down dropped goal and then raced 70 metres upfield for a score that knocked le resistance out of Les Bleus, Read nodded in affirmation.
"It was a great standard for us to set," he said. "Defence really shows the character of a side and your willingness to put your body on the line for each other. We really stuck at it when they brought it to us around the rucks.
"We've got to build from that. It was certainly a great effort. It's awesome to put in that effort and then get the reward at the end."
He had no doubt that play knocked the stuffing out of any French comeback that may have been brewing.
"They stuck at it, but we kept knocking them over when they brought it to us close to the line. And when we got opportunities to play down their end, we did that pretty well. It felt like if we D'd up really well they weren't going to break us.
"That was a real positive. It's about keeping our discipline there and ensuring we have a strong line and don't give them an easy out via a penalty or something like that."
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was happy to give his new skipper a resounding pat on the back afterwards.
"He's been leading the side tremendously well for a new captain. He's totally assured about how he wants to do that, he communicates well with us in the management group, with his leadership team, and the young guys, so there's a feeling of contentment from everybody around the way he's doing his job.
"And playing wise he's just doing what he always does - he sets the standards really high. He gutsed his way through a hit in the back just before halftime, and did very well to see the game out. His big carry up the middle out of defence is typical of what we expect from our leaders."
Read was asked about the injury, and any chance it might keep him out of the final test in New Plymouth.
"It's hard to know what it is," he shrugged, "just a cork or something in the back. It will be something that will be a bit sore for a few days but hopefully settle down with a bit of treatment."
Tough guy. Inspirational leader.