Campbell Burnes caught up with the great Kieran Read, who announced his retirement from all rugby in May after the Japanese Top League season.
Nice to see a fellow member of the All Blacks No 8 club – ‘Buck’ Shelford – being recognised with a knighthood?
Oh, huge for him and very special. He’s obviously done so much for the All Blacks jersey and then done so much outside of the game too, which is probably the most important thing.
You probably didn’t see much of him in playing action in your early days?
I didn’t watch too much of him, but I heard the stories, including the classic ones, such as around his scrotum injury. They are some of the legends you hear growing up.
I imagine you had it in your mind that it was the right time to go after the Top League season and the semifinal defeat of Toyota Verblitz to Panasonic Wild Knights?
I did. I was always going to be finishing off and that was the natural end. I guess you have to announce it.
Was the body still in good nick when you called it a day, no residual issues with your back?
No, the back’s come good, probably not playing as much footy in the last two years. I’ve got a couple of dodgy knees, which is normal when you play as long as I have, but generally the body is in good shape. I was definitely keen to finish off on the right note in terms of that and keen to utilise that body to spend time with the kids over the next wee while.
The family stayed back in New Zealand this year, unlike in my first season. That made sense with everything that was happening in the world. They were going to come up and see me but Japan locked down again in terms of visas and they couldn’t get back up. It was a tough year being away from them but it was good to play some footy to finish off on the field.
Did you feel you played some good rugby for Toyota to round things out?
Oh, personally it wasn’t really about myself and my own footy. I wanted us to do well as a team. There were definite challenges for us to work through the season, Covid-19 not the least of them. I felt Toyota has really improved in the last two seasons. I pride myself on making the teams I am involved in better. I was one of the captains but Willie Le Roux, Michael Hooper and myself were all capped, but you’re only allowed two (foreigners) on the field. Hoops was alright, he can go 80 minutes, but it was often 80 minutes for me and those guys shared the other minutes (laughs). I enjoyed that part of helping the guys connect and making sure the guys are doing the right thing.
Was Hooper in good shape to again play well for the Wallabies?
Yep, I can’t see why not. He made a big impact on the field, often coming off the bench in the last 30 minutes. It was interesting picking his brain a bit as to what it was like from his perspective in playing against us for a number of years and the Australian make-up. It was good to get to know him and I’m sure we’ll catch up again.
We know the Top League is a different style to NZ rugby, but is it a good standard up there?
It’s definitely a good standard and it’s improved from even five years ago, in talking to the guys up there. It’s not as physical as in New Zealand, but the guys are well drilled and the game’s played at a good clip. The skill level is pretty high, so you have to be on your game. There’s probably 5-6 good sides and then there can be some games that aren’t as tough.
Steve Hansen was stuck on Zoom with us. He couldn’t get out of New Zealand as they were not issuing new visas. Doing it remotely is tough, so he couldn’t be hands-on with the players.
Was it mentally tough keeping your standards high, given you were playing for a team that was no longer the pinnacle of the game for you?
No, it wasn’t, actually. It was quite invigorating, not having that external pressure as you have back in New Zealand. I’m that way inclined that when I turn up I want to do the best I can. I want to help the guys around me. All these Japanese players are so keen to learn. There wasn’t so much pressure on me to play well but I was just trying to help the boys out. I really enjoyed that, having had that pressure for several years.
You had five games for the Counties Manukau Steelers in 2020, but was there no chance you were going to come back for one last season with them?
No, that wasn’t part of the plan. I really enjoyed my time with the Steelers. I could probably have physically kept playing for them, but I’m down here in Christchurch and I’ve already spent a long time away from home, so I have to make up for that as much as I can.
I know one of your roles with the Steelers was to mentor the younger boys, so for someone like loose forward Viliami Taulani, is he closer to realising his full potential?
I hope so. I see he made his Chiefs debut this season. The thing is with some of these guys coming into NPC is that they come in from fulltime jobs and just don’t know any different. To be able to train professionally and have a full pre-season under their belt, it does wonders for any young player. Someone like Viliami has a massive future if he can keep himself in the right frame of mind.
So your rugby-watching now: All Blacks, Crusaders and perhaps Counties Manukau and Canterbury?
I watched quite a bit of footy up in Japan, having plenty of downtime. I watched most of the New Zealand Super Rugby stuff. At home I watch a bit of footy every now and then. If the kids want to go the Crusaders, I’ll take them along. It’s always going to be part of my life. I still enjoy watching it.
What are your plans now? Is there anything within rugby, such as coaching, that might attract you?
Not too sure, really. I am in the midst of trying to set up a leadership consultation business, perhaps helping out academies or young guys or rugby teams initially and then hopefully building that into a wider audience. I feel like rugby gave me so much, so I want to try and give back.
Anything away from rugby that you’ll enjoy getting into?
I enjoyed playing a bit of golf up in Japan. That was the first time I could consistently play for a while. I’ll take my time, get a handicap and go from there.
Any thoughts about dusting off the whites and playing cricket again?
Not in any official capacity. I do have the kit there ready and waiting for those Black Clash games, though! Dan Vettori is still impressive and no one can collar him. I faced him when I was playing a club game when I was still at school on an artificial pitch, but it was crazy, you just couldn’t hit him!
Do you admire some of these old warriors like Liam Messam and Alun Wyn Jones, who seemingly just keep going?
I’m full of admiration for them. The toll it takes on your body is tough, but it depends what you want to get out if it and, if you are mentally still there, then it’s great to see them getting around. Having experience sprinkled through competitions here in New Zealand, in particular, is only going to aid the development of our younger players. I don’t envy them, though, I’m happy just watching now.
Who was your toughest opponent as a No 8?
I would probably say Duane Vermeulen. Initially, it was Pierre Spies. He was someone who I looked up to in how to play the game. So those two would be the key ones.
Though you debuted for the All Blacks in 2008, was that 2009 Test in Marseille the breakthrough one for you and what was to become one of our great loose trios alongside Richie McCaw and Jerome Kaino?
It’s marked as one of those big ones because we didn’t have a great year, losing to South Africa three times. I had started in Sydney earlier that year and that was where I really established myself in the All Blacks. Marseille was special. There was a lot on that game.
You seemed to love performing at Eden Park: 2010 versus the Boks, 2011 Rugby World Cup final, 2017 first Test versus the Lions. These were some of your big Tests on that hallowed turf.
It’s awesome there. It’s literally our home as All Blacks and the ground you want to play on the most. It brings out the best in us and the crowd is really special there. Playing in front of a full house there is always really enjoyable.
You had two Rugby World Cup victories, but is there one career highlight that stands above all else?
No, those World Cups are at the top of the pile. They were special in different ways, but they rank as the top two highlights.
How proud were you of getting through that difficult period after back surgery when it took time to return to your attacking best in 2018-19, all the while doing it under the spotlight of being All Blacks skipper?
I prided myself on being out there and being consistent. The fact is that people outside the team look for certain things in how you are performing. They want to see a big play or a try to change the game, but it’s about all the little things that add up. I truly believe I was doing that right up to the end. If you are making the team better for your presence, that’s the measure of it. Very proud to come through that surgery. It was daunting and scary, to be honest. I had to battle some demons and put myself back on the field in good nick.
Do you recall the losses as much as the victories?
Oh, look, every now and then if someone talks about it, the defeats come up, but it doesn’t dominate my mind. The big ones, such as the Lions in 2017 and the Rugby World Cup in 2019 are there, but the key is that I’m blessed to have had such a long career. The good ones outweigh the losses and the losses make you the person you are today. I wouldn’t swap them for too much else.
What are the major concerns for the game now? I’m thinking the global season, the laws, player welfare…
When I was last here, we were trying to help get the whole global season under way and that will be crucial to help wellbeing and sorting out better competitions for the guys. I look at the game now and seeing the stoppages is frustrating. You cannot really wear a team down if there are endless stoppages for TMO or something else. The whole resilience of playing 80 minutes is being affected. You get five minutes to make a decision sometimes, so it all drags out. You need to back gut instinct.
Thoughts on the All Blacks No 8 for July? There are probably three candidates in Ardie Savea, Hoskins Sotutu and perhaps Luke Jacobson, who has played a lot there for the Chiefs.
I think Ardie has to be on the field, but I think a No 8 has to be a specialist too. But it’s time in the saddle and Ardie has really grown into that role. He’s quite different to me in that role and that’s great. Hoskins has got a big future if he keeps growing his game.
Do you feel Jacobson is more of a No 6 at All Blacks level?
I think so. When he came in in 2019 he was chopping guys off the line and he looked like having a big future in the All Blacks. The loose forwards will always be tough to select.
The All Blacks in your day generally favoured four lineout options, with two of the loosies being jumpers. Is that a fair philosophy, given three is more limiting?
Yeah, in a best-case scenario you want four genuine options. It gives your lineout caller so much more confidence about utilising the space that is given to you. It means that the opposition have to worry about more than just stopping the locks. My strength was my lineout, but guys nowadays don’t have to be that tall to be genuine lineout options.
Is Sam Whitelock a guy who really benefitted from that 2020 season in Japan, after such a heavy workload through 2018-19, and now he is playing so strongly?
I certainly think so. He’s one of the best locks around. He’s a good mate and great to see him playing good footy. At his age, that little bit of time off can give your body that chance to refresh and increase your longevity in the game.
Are you confident the All Blacks will bounce back strongly this season after a scratchy, shortened, programme in 2020?
One hundred percent. The tools are all there for them to go really well. It’s just about putting it together. It’s about measuring the talent you have around the expectations and putting it out on the field. I’m sure they’ll do well.
Position: No 8/flanker
Teams: New Zealand, Junior All Blacks, Crusaders, NZ Colts, NZ Schools, NZ Under 19s, Canterbury, Counties Manukau, Toyota Verblitz (Japan), Canterbury University (club), Rosehill College (First XV)
All Blacks number: 1083
All Blacks 2008-19: 127 Tests/1 game/26 tries
Crusaders 2007-19: 157 games/27 tries
Canterbury 2006-09: 37 games/10 tries
Counties Manukau 2020: 5 games/1 try
First-class 2005-20 (NZ): 341 games (sixth on all-time list)/64 tries
Honours: 2011 and 2015 RWC champion, 2010 and 2013 Kel Tremain Memorial Trophy as NZ rugby player of year; 2013 IRB player of year; 2010-19 Rugby Almanack XV No 8; 2008, 2017-19 Super Rugby champion, 2008 NPC champion