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How Sam Cane's return will impact the All Blacks loose forwards

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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After almost five months out of action due to a pectoral injury sustained during the Super Rugby Aotearoa season, injured All Blacks captain Sam Cane is on the comeback trail.


The 29-year-old hasn’t featured for the All Blacks at all this season as he continues to recover from the injury he picked up while playing for the Chiefs against the Blues at the end of March.

However, in an Instagram post last week, Cane detailed that he plans to make a long-awaited return to the playing field within the next two months after he regained a full range of motion following a shoulder reconstruction and pectoral reattachment.

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It means the 74-test veteran could feature for the All Blacks on their end-of-year tour of the United States, Wales, Italy, France and Ireland throughout the course of October and November.

Most will expect Cane to be eased back into the thick of things after such a lengthy injury spell, with appearances against the United States and Italy, possibly from off the bench, likely before being thrown into the mix against bigger opponents.

Cane’s reintegration back into the All Blacks will bring with it an element of intrigue, though, given how well the current crop of loose forwards have been playing in his absence.

In New Zealand’s Bledisloe Cup-clinching 57-22 thumping of the Wallabies at Eden Park last weekend, the starting back row trio of Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii and Ardie Savea all caught the eye with standout displays.


On the attacking front, Ioane and Savea led the way with a collective total of one try, one try assist, 127 running metres, six defenders beaten and two clean breaks.

The efforts of the blindside flanker and No 8 drew the praise of former All Blacks hooker James Parsons, who told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that Ioane’s attacking traits were beginning to shine in the test arena.

“I think that’s what Akira’s strength is, that wide channel play. He’s making massive gains in his tight work, in his physicality and his defence,” Parsons said as he spoke highly of Ioane’s role in the lead-up to Brodie Retallick’s try last weekend.

“That ball in two hands, he’s pumping, he’s pumping, [Wallabies wing Andrew] Kellaway has to bite to the winger because he’s more worried about that speed, and then he [Ioane] has the ability to give an inside ball to Damian [McKenzie], who gives a freakish offload as well.


“That ball in two hands, to run at that pace at that size, that’s his bread and butter. Also, he drifted on the pass of his brother’s. There were so many things he does naturally that are so hard to do. He is such a threat in those channels.”

Parsons added that Savea’s physicality and ball-carrying prowess while going into contact has been immense and was vital in his assist to Will Jordan’s try last weekend.

“Ardie, his physicality and his post-contact [metres], to get through contact [with his] leg drive, and then come out the other side like he did to link for Jordan’s try, he was massive.”

Papalii, meanwhile, proved himself as a defensive workhorse as he made a match-high 19 tackles from 22 attempts to stamp his mark on the No 7 jersey in just his third test start.

Crusaders and Maori All Blacks halfback Bryn Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that Papalii is beginning to bear the fruits of more exposure at test level and, with more playing time under his belt, he could prove to be a formidable international prospect.

“Probably a guy that goes unnoticed during that, because obviously when you’ve got guys that have that ability to attack with Ardie and Akira, Dalton was fantastic defensively,” Hall said.

“He topped the tackle count with 19, so when you’ve got a guy like that who can release those guys to be able to play on the edge, get a little bit on the edge – with Aki, but even for Ardie coming through the middle for Jordan’s try – Dalton does all the messy work.

“We’ve talked about it before. He’s only going to grow the more test matches that he gets.”

The contrasting styles of play between those three players has seen them establish themselves as the starting back row trio in Ian Foster’s side this year.

The added influence of Luke Jacobson off the bench means the All Blacks have a tried and tested loose forward contingent in their match day side.

That contingent is further bolstered by the strong depth evident throughout the squad, as the likes of Hoskins Sotutu, Shannon Frizell and Ethan Blackadder can all be called upon to provide ample support if required.

All of that creates an interesting dilemma for Foster when it comes time to welcoming Cane back into the playing roster.

Despite the impressive performances of Ioane, Papalii and Savea, as well as that of Jacobson, it is expected that Cane, given both his role as captain and his world-class ability as a flanker, will be thrust back into the starting side as soon as possible.

It means one of the current starting three will have to drop out of the run-on side, and that could, in turn, jeopardise Jacobson’s place in the match day squad.

As an openside flanker with similar qualities to Cane, Papalii looms as the most likely candidate to lose his place in the starting back row considering the All Blacks are likely to want to maintain the current loose forward balance that has worked so well for them.

However, Hall warned that Papalii’s demotion from the starting team could hamper his development as a test player, which he said has been progressing well since being handed a run of starts for the first time in his international career.

“I know Sam Cane is the captain and he’s coming back, probably shortly, but the more time Dalton’s going to get in that jersey, we’re going to start to see him dominating like he does at Super Rugby level with turnovers at crucial moments,” Hall said.

“He’s coming along really, really nicely, pairing up with those loose forwards, Ardie and Aki.”

Parsons added that opportunities could still come for Papalii, and those – such as Sotutu, Frizell and Blackadder – who remain on outer within the All Blacks squad, once the third Bledisloe Cup test rolls around.

When and where the final Bledisloe Cup clash of the year will take place remains uncertain after Covid-19 outbreaks in New Zealand and Australia have thrown the Rugby Championship into disarray.

Sources have told RugbyPass that an emergency plan to take the competition to the United Kingdom and Europe is being considered, and it could be that the third Bledisloe Cup test is held in any one of London, Dublin, Cardiff or Paris.

Regardless of where it is staged, Parsons said that, with the prized piece of silverware locked away for a 19th straight year, Foster could tinker with his side to give those who have received minimal game time in recent weeks a chance to prove their worth.

The former two-test hooker added that Foster will utilise different game plans for different teams, meaning that those who played against the Wallabies might not feature against the Springboks or Los Pumas.

“They’ll pinpoint some games where they’ll create opportunity. It might be this third Bledisloe,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“Then it’s on for those guys when they get their opportunity, whether it’s 10 or 15 minutes, or it’s 70, it’s executing and putting their hand up because the current three are doing that.

“But, let’s not forget, game plans change against different sides, so a style of play that’s suited against the Wallabies might be different against a physical, high-kicking team in South Africa and Argentina.”


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