Rugby World Cup 2019: All Blacks captain Kieran Read back to his best ahead of England showdown

All Blacks captain Kieran Read has had his share of detractors in the last 12 months, as he worked his way back to fitness from back surgery at the end of 2017.

But the rampaging No.8 is showing signs he is peaking at the right time.

On his 34th birthday, Read will lead New Zealand into his 51st test as captain against England in their Rugby World Cup semi-final in Yokohama on Saturday. 

But his presence at the tournament at all is testament to his tenacity, after he had the surgery on pinched nerves in his back that caused him pain in his legs in late 2017.

Rugby World Cup 2019: All Blacks captain Kieran Read back to his best ahead of England showdown
Rugby World Cup 2019: All Blacks captain Kieran Read back to his best ahead of England showdown

He did not return until the end of Super Rugby in 2018.

Read had been criticised for what some considered lacklustre play over the last 12 months, but coaches Steve Hansen and Ian Foster cautioned that the type of back surgery he had would take time to recover from.

"It does take time," Read told reporters. "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."

Read's excitement was no more evident than against Ireland in the World Cup quarter-final last week, when he co-led the 'Kapa O Pango' haka with scrumhalf TJ Perenara and exuded a sense of bristling aggression.

While he may no longer range in the wide channels as frequently as he had in the past, Read was massive on defence for the All Blacks, making all 14 of his tackles and was stinging in the contact areas.

He also showcased that he was still potent on attack, setting up Aaron Smith's first try, while he smashed into two defenders, got his hands free of the tackle and popped the ball to hooker Codie Taylor to score early in the second half.

Such was Read's performance, he must have pushed fullback Beauden Barrett for the man-of-the-match award, offering definitive proof he was peaking at just the right time.

But Read is also winding down the clock on his test career, after signing a contract with Japanese club Toyota that starts after the World Cup, and he considers that anything other than a third winners medal would be a failure.

"Of course, people are going to say we've failed if we don't win, but the nature of the All Blacks and the scrutiny we have, the expectation is to win," he said.

"England are good enough to win and that's all we're focusing on."

Essential Guide to 2019 Rugby World Cup

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The ninth Rugby World Cup kicks off on September 20 in Japan - the first time it has been hosted in Asia.

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