How do you replace a man like Richie McCaw? It has been the question mulling around in many New Zealanders minds following the retirement of the legendary All Blacks skipper. A man who led his country out in over 100 test matches and the first man in the history of the sport to lead his team to two World Cup titles, the truth is nobody can replace the man. Despite this though, life goes on for the New Zealand rugby union side. Having become the first side to successfully defend a World Cup and in the process be labelled the greatest rugby team of all-time, New Zealand rugby is in a pretty good place. However coach Steve Hansen now faces the unenviable task of replacing legendary players such as McCaw, Dan Carter and Ma’a Nonu. With a home test series against Wales to come in June, the first job in preparation for this series was naming a new captain. Having dominated the no.7 jersey and achieved so much in many years as captain, McCaw’s successor as captain would have to be someone who could shoulder the immense responsibility that comes with being an All Blacks skipper. Hansen decided that man was Kieran Read. At 30 years of age and with 84 international caps to his name, Read was the obvious choice for many, with him being one of the first names on the team-sheet in this vintage All Blacks side. Having served as vice-captain to McCaw – as well as being named IRB World Player of the Year in 2013 – Read is no stranger to the captain’s armband, but now taking on the job permanently; the Crusaders’ No.8 will have to prove he has what it takes to follow McCaw and lead his country to even more glory.
Perhaps surprisingly for a side that have been so dominant in the last few years, the All Blacks are going through a stage of transition, with a number of the squad’s elder statesmen calling it a day following the World Cup. Add to that the decision by both Sonny Bill-Williams and Liam Messam to switch to play Sevens for the year – in the hope of going to the Rio Olympics – thus making them unavailable for selection in the 15-man game, and Hansen has a number of positions to fill ahead of the visit of Warren Gatland’s men. One position that may cause some headaches for Hansen will be his centres. Having seen the two men who have made up their midfield partnership for much of the last few years (Nonu and Conrad Smith) retire and with fellow World Cup centre Williams unavailable for selection, Hansen will need to find a new player to partner young Malakai Fekitoa. It is likely that Hansen will cast his eye closely over the performances of the New Zealand franchises when the new Super Rugby season kicks off, with the idea of finding Fekitoa’s long-term midfield partner. With Sam Cane and Ardie Savea likely to be vying for the no.7 jersey and Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett fighting for the fly-half berth vacated by Carter, Hansen and Read will be keen to find the same strength in depth in the centre positions where at this moment in time, dare it be said the All Blacks look slightly vulnerable.
In the immediate present new captain Read will be expected to deliver a series win over the Welsh in preparation for a tilt at the Rugby Championship where New Zealand will look to reclaim the title from their antipodean rivals Australia who snatched the title with victory in Sydney last year. Following that attentions will soon turn to the upcoming Lions tour of 2017, in what is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime shot at facing the great touring side for most of these current All Blacks. For Read in particular this will be his only chance to face the Lions, and leave a defining legacy during his time as captain. Unlike McCaw who was much younger when he first took on the captaincy role, Read is likely to play as captain for only a few years before it is passed down once again. With time running out in his career there are no guarantees that Read will be All Blacks captain when the next World Cup comes around in Japan in 2019. A dual World Cup winner who played an integral part in New Zealand’s triumphs in 2011 and 2015, if Read’s career finished tomorrow he would surely be remembered as one of the greatest All Blacks, but the visit of the Lions in 2017 will undoubtedly be Read’s biggest challenge as All Blacks skipper, and the result of that test series will go a long way to deciding Read’s place among the pantheon of All Black captains.