OPINION: Kieran Read is rapidly becoming the player the Crusaders can least afford to lose – more important to the cause than even Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.
McCaw and pivot Dan Carter are widely regarded as the two best players in the world – and, over the course of their careers, they most certainly are.
But it's pretty clear this year that the Crusaders have gone from The Top Two to a secular, sporting equivalent of The Holy Trinity. Read rightly belongs on that exalted upper level alongside his skipper and Carter. The Crusaders have won without McCaw and Carter this year – due to the two Matts, Todd and Berquist. But the back row balance wouldn't be the same without Read.
Bushy eyebrows were raised when Read was named New Zealand player of the year ahead of McCaw last season.
That's now looking a particularly prescient decision. McCaw's 2011 season has been blighted by his pre-season foot injury and subsequent surgery. He's at that stage of his career where, like other champions before him (Colin Meads, Sean Fitzpatrick and Zinzan Brooke, to name just a few), he peaks at key times of the season.
Carter remains a calm and composed conductor with an uncanny ability to go up a gear at vital parts of a game – witness that inspired grubber kick for Zac Guildford's try against the Blues in Timaru.
Read just seems to get better with every game. He was absolutely inspirational at Cape Town on Sunday for a man who was hobbling just days before the game. Read was captaining the Crusaders when he hurt his ankle in the first half against the Sharks in the quarterfinal in Nelson. At one point it looked like he would struggle to continue, which would have been a blow with McCaw already out injured. But he stayed on, raised his game to another level and led the Crusaders to victory with a vigorous second-half performance.
New Zealand rugby has been blessed with some brilliant No8s. Read is unlikely to spawn public support along the lines of the Bring Back Buck campaign when Buck Shelford was dropped from the All Blacks. Nor can he drop goals from halfway like the mercurial Brooke. But, before his career is over, he may well be feted as the All Blacks' best in his position.
The converted blindside flanker took time to adapt to the back-of-the-scrum role. But he has dominated the position at international level for three seasons. Read is an extraordinary athlete, blessed with pace and ball-running ability. He's also now starting to impose himself more physically and make the most of his 1.94m, 110kg frame. He's a lineout threat at the front and the rear and is clearly a Crusaders and All Blacks captain-in-waiting.
The Crusaders could clearly win without Read should he be struck down by some tropical lurgy in Brisbane this week. McCaw would go to No8, Todd to the openside and ironman George Whitelock would continue his yeoman work in the No6 jersey.
But the balance of the back row wouldn't be quite the same. Read is clearly a player in his prime. This is his time. He is as vital to winning the big pots now – and in October – as Carter and McCaw.
- The Press