Lions tour: All Blacks have faith in captain Kieran Read's readiness for battle
If Kieran Read can lace 'em up, he's more than ready for what lies ahead.
In fact no one in Camp All Black has the slightest concern about Read's state of readiness for the team's biggest test since the 2015 World Cup final at Twickenham.
That's how much faith they have in their skipper who is back, fit and firing around the training field, and will, barring the unforeseen, lead his team out in the first test against the mighty British and Irish Lions on Saturday night at Eden Park.
Sure, he'll be a trifle underdone, and those lungs might burn just a little at times, but Read's coaches and team-mates understand too well the special rugby player they have in their midst.
Read, of course, has hardly played in 2017. He made a late entry into Super Rugby after off-season wrist surgery, and then fractured his thumb three games into his return, putting him in a race against time for the once-every-12-years shot at the Lions.
It was a race he was always going to win, even if the margin for error was tight. The All Blacks captain, who will bring up his century of test caps if he plays all three tests against the Lions, wasn't quite right for the warmup against Samoa, but came through Tuesday's first major training hitout of the week in fine fashion.
Asked if Read was ever going to miss the series opener, assistant coach Ian Foster told media at the team hotel on Tuesday: "He didn't want to miss it. He's desperate to play and he's our leader. But the diagnosis has always been that he was due back to play this game.
"We've just been monitoring that progress. He was touch and go for last week, to get a few minutes under his belt. But it didn't happen.
"We're pretty satisfied. He had his first real solid hitout with contact [at Tuesday training], and hopefully he comes through that really well and it becomes a reasonably easy decision."
All of which makes the All Blacks an even tougher obstacle for the Lions. Not only is Read one of the biggest, toughest most adept No 8s in the game, but he's a man his players will happily go to their dark places to back up.
"Reado has been a big part of our leadership group for a long time now," added Foster. "The way he grew into the role last year (post Richie McCaw's retirement), the biggest accolade I can give him is that he grew the people around him. He's very inclusive in his leadership style, and earned a lot of respect for that.
"We've got other people who would do a job, but to have Reado back would be a real boost for us."
Long-time national and franchise team-mate Sam Whitelock had no doubt about Read's timeline, nor what he would bring in what's sure to be a physical matchup on Saturday night.
"Now he's ready to go he'll bring that Kieran Read way of playing," said Whitelock. "He'll lead from the front. It's awesome when he does that. He plays great rugby when he's being himself and taking the lead."
Fellow loose forward Sam Cane had his own theory about Read.
"His standards are so high, there's just not much difference between his good and his best games. Even when he came back a few rounds in with the Crusaders it took him hardly anything to get back in his stride."
Foster confirmed all but the still rehabbing Dane Coles and Liam Squire had participated fully in a quality training on Tuesday that had been all about the All Blacks' side of the equation.
"Tuesday is a big day, we get a lot of work done, and when you go into a big occasion like this there's always a bit of edge to it," Foster said. "Tuesdays are about us preparing to play our game, and about getting a good understanding about what we're going to do."
Midfield shapes as the main selection puzzler. Essentially, with Ryan Crotty now back from his rib cartilage problem, the All Blacks have three compelling contenders for two spots. Coach Steve Hansen has already indicated all three will make the match-day 23.
"Last week [against Samoa] was the first time Sonny [Bill Williams] and Anton [Lienert-Brown] have played together for a long time," said Foster. "They've both had spells off in Super Rugby and haven't hit their top form, so to gel the way they did was fantastic.
"And Ryan we know is a very smart rugby player who has never let us down in whatever role we've given him. We've got some nice decisions there, but the good thing is we're making decisions between players we know will do a very good job."
It's unlikely either Waisake Naholo or Rieko Ioane will unseat incumbents Julian Savea and Israel Dagg for the wing spots, though, as in midfield, it's a tight contest.
The All Blacks will name their team for the first test early Thursday.