All Blacks coach Ian Foster has confronted the two major questions following Sam Cane’s appointment as national captain.
Firstly, why was Cane favoured ahead of Sam Whitelock, the veteran lock perceived by many to be Kieran Read’s heir apparent?
Secondly, what does Cane’s captaincy mean for world-class loose forward Ardie Savea?
Foster acknowledged the captaincy decision, the first statement of his new era, came down to a choice between Whitelock and Cane.
Whitelock, with 117 tests to Cane’s 68, has superior experience having featured at three World Cups. Cane is, however, three years younger at 28.
In the end it was Cane’s leadership approach – his open, honest, mature, inclusive style – that earned him the nod.
“It definitely wasn’t a one horse race,” Foster said. “Last year was a different group and we had a different captain. When you’re looking at your captain you look at the whole balance of the leadership group. Sammy Whitelock had a pretty special relationship with Kieran Read so there was a lot of synergy there. When we went from one to the other it was almost seamless.
“Sammy proved he could be a great All Black captain so that wasn’t really the debate. It was a matter of looking at the different styles and the group we think we might have when we put names down on paper and we felt Sam Cane’s style might be a little bit more conducive for this group.
“In some ways it was a great decision to have as a coach because we had at least two people who we were extremely confident in. Sam has actually been in the leadership group longer than Sam Whitelock.
“They’re two great people surrounded by a number of others who we’re equally confident in. Overall Sam Cane is at a point in his career where he’s ready to lead, he’s got a great style and for us it was a gut feel. He’s ready for it. He’s had some great mentors in this All Blacks camp in the last eight years.”
The next hot topic is where Cane’s anointment leaves Savea, last year’s All Blacks, Super Rugby and overall Kelvin R Tremain Memorial player of the year, who then signalled interest in switching to rugby league.
Savea’s form was so compelling at the World Cup that he was preferred at openside flanker for the ill-fated semifinal defeat to England, with the All Blacks starting Scott Barrett at blindside and Cane coming off the bench.
With his captaincy decision, Foster has effectively committed to starting Cane and Savea in the same loose forward trio. Savea proved his ability at No 8 where his speed of the back off the scrum is a valuable asset, while Cane’s confrontational style is equally suited to the six role.
Yet it is the seven jersey both prefer.
Height in the lineout and power in contact will be defining qualities to determining who partners the pair.
“We’ve shown we can both get them on the park at the same time which we’re excited about,” Foster said.
“Certainly when you look at form from last year both players were good enough to be selected.
“We’ve looked at the versatility of Ardie and Sam so we’ve got some really good options there. Some of that might be influenced by who puts their hand up as the third loosie.
“There’s plenty of room for people to impress in that six-eight role and we’ll look at the combinations from then on.
“Ardie is a massive part of our plans, as is Sam Cane. I’m pretty sure we’ll find a way to get them both playing, and playing really well.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 6, 2020
Foster is not wedded to appointing a vice-captain anytime soon, saying it was not an obvious strategy and that Cane would ultimately shape his leadership group.
He also addressed the bizarre timing of the announcement with the July tests set to be postponed and uncertainty surrounding the All Blacks first appearance of the year, which is expected to come against the Wallabies.
“Whilst it looks a bit strange because we haven’t got an itinerary yet, it’s not strange because we’re still doing a lot planning behind the scenes about all the different scenarios and a strong player input is vital. The best way to do that is get the pecking order sorted and get Sam sorted in his role so he can maximise the input of his teammates.
“There’s undoubtedly a lot of pressure on everyone and we’re no different to any other organisation in this country. For us the challenges are very real. We know we’re in an industry which is high cost high revenue so when you take away the revenue you’ve got problems.”
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