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Kieran Read: My World Cup comeback has gone perfectly to plan

Front foot: Kieran Read on the charge
Front foot: Kieran Read on the charge
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

As Steve Hansen sat down in Tokyo Stadium's media room last weekend to reflect on his side's quarter-final win over Ireland, before being asked a question he offered words of praise for those who had preceded him on the stage, Ireland's Joe Schmidt and Rory Best.

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The end of the line for the pair, it wasn't so long ago that the man sat to Hansen's left was hearing the same said of his great career.

"The next thing I would like to acknowledge is the big fellow beside me here," Hansen said of his indomitable captain Kieran Read.

"He came back from a back injury, he copped a lot of flak from some people about his form, but as his injury got better and better so did his play."

Read will go again against England in the semi-finals tomorrow (9am UK time), continuing a remarkable run that has seen him play every single minute of New Zealand's seven-game unbeaten run in the knockout stages of this competition dating back to 2011.

His selection was confirmed by Hansen yesterday, Read joking that it was only his desire to stay dry that saw him miss training on Tuesday during a damp Tokyo day.

He feels as necessary than ever, his performance against Ireland one for the ages and all the more remarkable for what had preceded it.

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Only a year ago it was the skipper taking the heat for a 2018 that was, by his and All Black standards, indifferent.

Back surgery on a bulging disc at the tail end of the previous year was designed to correct the issues that had left him watching on as his side finished up their northern hemisphere tour, but it kept him out for the better part of the next season.

When he made his comeback, a return to fitness did not signal an immediate return to excellence.

The loss to the Springboks in Wellington soon after he was restored to the black jersey, when his side eschewed chance after chance to attempt what would have been a game-winning drop goal but instead lost by two, was described as a "failure of leadership" in the press. Come the loss to Ireland two months later, the commentary was no kinder.

It was Read, of course, who so nearly could have proved to be the match-winner that Dublin day.

Jacob Stockdale's heart was in his mouth when he attempted a chip over Read's head. The Kiwi's eyes will have lit up like the billboards over the Shibuya Crossing when he saw the charge down bouncing invitingly ahead of him with the try line at his mercy.

Instead, he looked all of a battle-weary 33 years, knocking the ball on as he stooped to gather. As if to accentuate the fine margins between success and failure, Read had a great view of the winning try when Stockdale's next boot to ball came from the Aviva turf having crucially been upended in the preceding line-out.

His now confirmed switch to Toyota Verblitz was already being rumoured, and with this World Cup then looming, to secure a fitting swansong required patience when others speculated he was running out of road.

"It just takes time," he said yesterday of his attitude towards the long process of recovery.

"It was just because when your nerves are blocked and not working properly, your whole body basically shuts down.

"I've worked hard to get back to it and it's probably taken a bit longer than what I anticipated.

"But I had this goal of what this tournament would bring, and I knew where I wanted to be and that's where I am now.

"I'm excited at what's coming."

As he should be. Tomorrow's eagerly-awaited last-four clash, coming on his 34th birthday no less, is the latest chapter in a second act many didn't foresee.

While much has been said about the re-invention of the All Blacks' attacking game, with Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga in tandem as dual play-makers, the metamorphosis of Read is just as striking.

Gone is the physical freak rampaging in the wider channels, replaced with a player whose rugby brain and sumptuous hands give the All Blacks back-row a dimension most can't fathom.

Take his performance against Ireland six days ago. It began with a tempo-setting hit on Ireland's most physical carrier, CJ Stander. Come the 48th minute, it was his delicate pop pass off the ground for Codie Taylor that moved the scores to 27-0 and ended the hopes of even the most green-eyed Irish supporter.

Such a dichotomy of skills, an iron fist within a velvet glove. Thirteen tackles and 18 carries filled a stat sheet that said nothing of his sensational vision or calming captaincy.

Barrett, man of the match against Ireland but in no doubt of Read's importance, reflected: "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's been playing, getting up off the line and making some big tackles - there's only one way to lead and that's by example and he's doing that very well."

Even if he doesn't train in the rain...

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