The sense that Kieran Read is timing his run to peak for the pointy end of the Rugby World Cup will make many feel uneasy about how quickly they wrote off the All Blacks captain.
Not so long ago, as he gradually returned from back surgery last year, Read was, supposedly, a spent force.
While there’s no doubt Read didn’t immediately produce the consistency demanded during his comeback, a lack of appreciation persists about the seriousness of the work needed to repair a bulging disk that left him immobilised, in chronic pain and, ultimately, threatened his career.
“It just takes time,” Read reflected as he prepares to lead the All Blacks in their semifinal against England in Yokohama. “It was because of my nerves, and when your nerves are blocked and not working properly your whole body basically shuts down.
“I worked hard to get back at it and it’s probably taken a bit longer than what you anticipate. For me I had this goal of what this tournament was going to bring. Knowing that, I know where I wanted to be and this is where I am now. I’m really excited by what’s coming at the moment.”
What’s coming is Read and the All Blacks stand on the cusp of their third World Cup final in as many tournaments. And he is a major reason why.
Those who wanted Read ditched as skipper and dropped entirely are, now, nowhere to be heard. That’s a journey All Blacks coach Steve Hansen took time out to discuss this week.
“He has copped some unfair criticism of his form because what he went through with his back operation is massive,” Hansen says. “You can see it with Tiger Woods for a sportsman how hard it is to come back and how long it takes. In our game that has an effect on your speed, mobility, and it takes a long time get back to where you were.
“He’s an older athlete now so we’ve had to be patient with him. Whilst people wanted more from him, what we were getting at that time we were very happy with.
“It’s very much like the 2015 World Cup with people criticising or wanting more from Dan Carter and even Richie McCaw himself.”
Read’s performance in last week’s quarter-final victory over Ireland was phenomenal. Given the driven stare in his eyes, it should come as no surprise.
Of Read’s 13 tackles, the vast majority were crunching hits, many forcing errors. He also carried 18 times, three less than Beauden Barrett who set an All Blacks World Cup record.
Ponder just how many times a fullback receives the ball in any match. Then consider the work Read did to near match Barrett’s efforts, while also throwing one superb offload for Codie Taylor’s try.
Much earlier in this tournament Read’s influence was clear elsewhere. During the frantic opening stages of the win over the Springboks he brought his team into a huddle, instructing them to stop throwing wild passes and instead set rucks. After that calming message, the All Blacks settled into their work and then exploded with two tries in six minutes.
Such leadership qualities may not always be publicly noted but, as Barrett explains, Read holds immense respect within this team.
“He’s inspirational,” Barrett said. “He leads with his actions, clearly, but also the influence he has around the team. His decision-making – we feel a lot of confidence with him leading us. The way he has been playing, getting up off the line and making some big tackles, there’s only one way to lead and that’s by example. He’s doing that very well.”
Read sparked fears this week after sitting out Tuesday training to protect a calf complaint suffered against Ireland. Injuries at this stage of the tournament are not uncommon but that Read will take his place at No 8 and mark England’s Billy Vunipola will ease the nerves of Hansen and, indeed, the nation.
“Physically he’s back to where he can really come out and do the things we expect him to do and we’re seeing that now in how he’s playing,” Hansen says.
“I’m really pleased for him. I know it means a lot to him, as it does all the boys. It’s pleasing to see our leader leading in the form he’s in. May it last for some time yet.
“People in the game understand he’s been a world-class player for a long, long time. They’re now seeing he’s still a world-class player. The criticism comes because of how high a standard he set when he was healthy.”
Succeeding greats of the game is never easy. Whether that’s stepping into McCaw’s shoes at openside or Carter’s at first five-eighth, the bar is set so high it’s near impossible to reach.
But just as McCaw’s legacy is forever enduring so, too, will Read’s be when he signs off his All Blacks career in Japan.
“It’s difficult for anyone coming after someone like that but only if you allow yourself the hangover of wanting to be like him or her or whoever it may be you’re following,” Hansen says. “The key thing is having your own identity and understanding you’ve got to do it your way.
“Kieran Read is a totally different captain to Richie McCaw. That doesn’t mean to say one is better than the other they have different styles and that’s important because it’s who they are.
“The most important thing about your leader is he plays well. Both those guys did that, and are doing that.
“You can’t be inhibited by what was before you. You’ve got to be inspired by it. I think Kieran, in all honesty, has been inspired by Richie but he wants to do