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Filling the ABs openside void

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Filling the All Blacks' openside void

A loose forward crop that was once the envy of international rugby teams the world over now looks abnormally thin with veteran All Blacks openside Sam Cane going down with a neck fracture.

26-year-old Cane suffered the injury while making a tackle on Springboks Number Eight Francois Louw during the first half of the All Blacks’ 32-30 comeback victory in Pretoria, later confirmed to be a fractured neck by team doctor Tony Page. Page said that while fractures generally take three months to return to full strength, the All Blacks plan to take things step by step.

Ardie Savea – despite the unfortunate circumstances – stepped in and shone on the side of the scrum against the Springboks, winning several crucial turnovers and scoring the match-winning try in a high-energy and high-impact shift.

He shapes as Cane’s replacement in the No. 7 jersey as we head towards the third Bledisloe Test, a one-off against Japan and the ensuing November Tests up north.

After Savea, experience wears thin, with 32-year-old Tanerau Latimer the only other Test-capped openside in the country – and he hasn’t pulled on the black jersey in nine years.

The temporary departure of Matt Todd to Japan at the conclusion of the 2018 Super Rugby season leaves the All Blacks with just one of their three first-choice opensides, with upcoming Tests against pack-heavy northern hemisphere sides set to push the forward depth to another level.

An immediate candidate to join the squad as a specialist No. 7 is North Harbour and Highlanders flanker Dillon Hunt, who played for the All Blacks against the French XV at the end of last year after a strong Super Rugby campaign and an impressive performance against the British and Irish Lions.

Hunt is enjoying some fine form since returning to Auckland’s North Shore and during the last Super Rugby season made a whopping 201 tackles in his 14 appearances – 14.4 per game – at a rate close to 90%.

Auckland and Blues flanker Blake Gibson is likely out of contention, having suffered yet another brutal injury blow. He was called up to the squad in 2017 when Cane was ruled out through concussion, and All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen has big wraps on the talented 23-year-old.

Blake Gibson. Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images.

He has not featured since round four of the Mitre 10 Cup – back in early September – and head coach Alama Ieremia confirmed that Gibson is out for the rest of the season with a quad injury.

“He’s had surgery so he’s out for the rest of the season. A big disappointment for him and I feel for him as a captain,” Ieremia told RugbyPass.

20-year-old Dalton Papali’i has done an admiral job filling in for Gibson with both Auckland and the Blues and could be a prospect for the position long-term.

23-year-old Bay of Plenty flanker Mitchell Karpik, as well as Otago’s James Lentjes, could be a pair of names in the conversation after their respective involvements with the Chiefs and Highlanders and a solid season of provincial rugby under their belts.

Time will tell who receives the nod, with the third Bledisloe and upcoming Test against Japan providing a good opportunity for Steve Hansen to blood some new talent in Cane’s unfortunate absence, especially leading towards a World Cup year.

In other news:

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Filling the All Blacks' openside void