OPINION: "I find it fascinating to watch," said Andy Ellis at the New Zealand rugby player of the year dinner. Nearby Kieran Read, having just won the New Zealand award, the second of three accolades last week anointing him as the best rugby player in the world, was chatting with Prime Minister John Key and television commentator Tony Johnson.
"I can remember Kieran when he first came down to Canterbury as a teenager," said Ellis. "He was a quiet, humble sort of guy then. I don't really see any change in him as a person. But now there's an aura about him. You can see it in the way people react to him. It's great."
The honours for Read the player, quite rightly, will have been driven this year in particular by the frequency with which he's produced astonishing off loads, slipped tackles with sinuous ease, and scored crucial test tries.
Seeing a man to whom flashy is a dirty word produce Houdini-like touches is as spellbinding and unexpected as if you discovered the burly, laconic builder who lives next door duets with Lorde in his spare time.
Where does Read stand in the Pantheon of the great No 8s in All Black rugby, in which I'd also include Brian Lochore, Murray Mexted, Buck Shelford and Zinzan Brooke?
Read reminds me most of Lochore, a towering figure as captain in the late 1960s.
Like Read, Lochore was big enough and good enough in the lineout to, at a pinch, play lock in a test match.
There are similarities also in their staggering, stoical, commitment. In March, when the Blues tipped over the Crusaders at Eden Park, the Blues wing, George Moala, scored a try in the dying minutes from 60 metres out. From the moment he beat fullback Israel Dagg he was never going to be caught. But one Crusaders defender flogged himself across field to try to force Moala into touch. It was Read.
"He's respected and admired for the fact he never plays with less than 100 per cent commitment," Crusaders' coach Todd Blackadder told me in April. "Then he doesn't back off for the All Blacks, he goes up another level. I think he has his priorities round the right way. He sees (super rugby) as a stepping stone to build his game. It's like the old days when you played well for your province, and then when you got to the All Blacks it was easy, because you'd found your form in the provincial team."
Being such a big, solid man you can miss the natural athleticism Read brings to his play. He's patently a gifted ball player, good enough to play age group cricket for New Zealand. Likewise Lochore's eye and anticipation made him a provincial tennis champion as a teenager.
There's black and white footage from the 1965 test at Eden Park against South Africa that shows Lochore at his agile attacking best.
Ranging behind the All Black backline, he runs onto a Springbok kick at full speed, sprints 20 metres, beats one tackler with a swerve, draws in two more defenders, taking them with him over the 22, and then frees the ball to Ron Rangi who passes to Ian Smith for an unopposed run for a try.
So where should we rate Read? For speed and dexterity, up with Mexted and Brooke. For honourable endeavour, up with Lochore. And for brutal physical presence, on a par with Shelford.
Crusaders' coach, Todd Blackadder, succinctly sums up Read with the ball. "The point of difference with Reado is his physicality. He's a tough man, the sort of man you want in a crisis. He does everything so well, but when he carries the ball, holy shit."
Having been lucky enough to see all of the Big Five No 8s play live (the '65 game at Eden Park was the first time I ever worked in a press box at a test) to pick just one feels a little like sacrilege. But if I had to select an all-time team with my children's lives depending on the side winning? My No 8 would be Kieran Read.
- Sunday Star Times
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