Ex-All Blacks captain Kieran Read hailed his blossoming bromance with Australia skipper Michael Hooper on Monday, as the former arch rivals prepare to join forces in Japan's Top League.
Read and Hooper will team up for the first time as Toyota Verblitz take on Toshiba Brave Lupus on Saturday, in the first round of a season delayed and shortened by coronavirus.
Read said it was "interesting" to be sharing a dressing room with his former trans-Tasman back-row rival, and he expects their relationship to flourish once they get to know each other better off the pitch.
"A lot of the Japanese boys have been giving me a little bit of stick about it -- we've been so used to being on the opposition side," Read said in an online press conference.
"I guess from my point of view, the frustrating thing has been with Covid restrictions and being in a bubble. We can't actually catch up outside of the game.
"It's a little bit frustrating, but from what I've seen, we actually get along really well," he added. "It's probably a bit strange for a lot of people looking at it, but it's been working well so far."
Hooper moved to Japan last month to begin a six-month stint with Toyota, only for the season to be put on hold for a month two days before it was due to begin, after scores of players tested positive for the virus.
Parts of Japan, including the greater Tokyo region, have been under a state of emergency since January 7, although the restrictions primarily target restaurants and bars.
- 'Ready to go' -
Other high-profile arrivals to Japan, including Read's former All Black teammate Beauden Barrett, have been frustrated by the delayed start to the season.
But Read believes Hooper is "ready to go for us this week."
"He hasn't been with the side as long as we'd like but he's a very professional player, so he got up to speed really quick and he's got to know the guys," Read said.
"I think he's frustrated as well, coming over here to enjoy Japan... Not being able to enjoy that side of life at the moment is a little bit tough, but we know we're here to do a job which is to play rugby."
And Read, who ended his international career after New Zealand's unsuccessful World Cup campaign in Japan in 2019, believes the All Blacks will face stiff competition as they look to reclaim the trophy in France in 2023.
"I would say I'd be confident that we'd be in a good place to win a World Cup in 2023, but I think any World Cup the All Blacks would say that they're confident," he said.
"I think what's showing is that the Six Nations at the moment are playing some very competitive games. Teams up there are showing that they're very capable.
"As the '19 World Cup showed, on your day, if you turn up and have right attitude and play well, then you can knock over probably any team in that top eight."