Kieran Read comfortable with growing stature
It says a lot about how far Kieran Read has come as a rugby player that he doesn't run red-faced from the room when it's mentioned that he's a warm favourite to be named the IRB's player of the year next week.
In previous years, Read would have been decidedly uncomfortable at the mere suggestion of his greatness; now he wears it like a cloak of pride as the All Blacks sit on the verge of professional rugby's first perfect test year. Just victory early on Monday (NZ time) against an Irish side that has never beaten them in 108 years lies between the New Zealanders and the calendar sweep.
Read has been a huge part of that, rising time and again to produce game-changing performances at No 8 that have most pundits picking him to edge out Welsh and Lions fullback Leigh Halfpenney for the supreme international award.
It will be a travesty if Read doesn't collect the gong, considering how influential he has been for an All Blacks side on the cusp of something very special indeed, and yesterday he handled the topic with the aplomb that's been a hallmark of his game all year long.
"I've enjoyed the year," said the All Blacks' most influential player. "I think I'm playing some of my best rugby and the way the team is adapting has enabled me to showcase what I can do, and the coach has been great letting me do that. I feel like I'm playing at quite a high level."
That's an understatement. Read has retained his core skills of withering defence, high work rate, strong carries and lineout prowess, and added a new dimension with his field coverage, open-ground running and SBW-like offloading.
Skipper Richie McCaw called Read a "special player" with his all-round game and growing leadership ability. "To have a man like that beside you playing like he is - it's pretty awesome. I'd say he'd go pretty close to winning that award."
Young blindside flanker Steven Luatua, who could be handed his fifth start of the season against Ireland, said Read was someone he aspired to emulate. "Time and time again he's putting in the big hits, and showing the finesse skills, the offloads. He runs our lineouts and runs them well. He's got a great all-round game," he said.
Read reflected on the Ireland test in a manner that suits his status. He conceded the looming summer break was "a challenge" and that the perfect year would be "massive achievement", but nothing this team wouldn't have aimed for at season's start. More rewarding, he reckoned, would be a "great performance" to sign the season off.
He had also received a timely reminder that the job wasn't yet done.
"My dad emailed and pretty much said you're only as good as your last effort. So that's my focus - to make sure we get out there and do the job. This is the one that people remember, and certainly one last year we didn't get right."
Read felt the All Blacks had not played their best footy the last fortnight, but liked the "mental ability" to grind out wins. He also gave a pretty definitive judgment on comparisons with 2011. "The culture is great at the moment and we're playing a better style of footy. If we get it right, it's pretty exciting to play in."
Crusaders team-mate Luke Romano, sitting alongside Read when he spoke to the media, may well be packing down with him against Ireland if Hansen decides to bring in some fresh legs.
Romano, Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua and Cory Jane will be looked at closely to provide that injection of enthusiasm, while Andrew Hore is a near certainty to start in what will be his test farewell. Wyatt Crockett and Aaron Cruden will slot in for the injured Tony Woodcock and Dan Carter.
Romano said he's ready to start if required after getting through 15 minutes off the bench against England. "It was probably as nervous as I've ever been, just because I hadn't played in 15 weeks ... but, once I got out there, it was like putting a glove back on. It felt comfortable. If I get the opportunity this week I'll be a lot better for it."
It had been a long process for Romano coming back from a major groin injury that required six weeks just for it to "scar" back to the bone. "It's all good now," he said. "I just had that mental barrier to get over [at Twickenham] and once the adrenalin was going you're just playing footy."
Possible All Blacks lineup: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Ben Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (capt), Steven Luatua, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Charlie Faumuina, Andrew Hore, Wyatt Crockett.