'I'm not quite in good enough shape to be playing test footy': Sam Cane's stark admission
Expectations that Cane will slot straight back into the starting lineup on the back of two appearances in six months – one for King Country in the Heartland Championship and one off the bench for the All Blacks against the USA two days ago – were quashed by the man himself on Tuesday [NZT].
Speaking to media a day after the All Blacks arrived in Cardiff to kick-off the European leg of their end-of-year tour, the 29-year-old conceded that, despite his inclusion in New Zealand’s touring party, he isn’t in good enough condition to play test rugby.
That may come as little surprise to some given Cane had been sidelined for more than half a year with a pectoral injury until earlier this month.
However, Cane moved to assure those who were oblivious of the significance of his injury and were anticipating a seamless return to action that time is of the essence with regard to when he will be back to his best.
“For people almost expecting that I’d come in and try and push for a starting place straight off the bat probably don’t appreciate how tough test match footy is,” Cane said.
“I’m not quite in good enough shape or sharp enough to be playing test match footy right now, that’s for sure.
“But, like I said, another week of training with the All Blacks, my mindset is similar to when I first made the squad and knew that I was going to get bugger all game time, which was to target each day and each week and try and be a better rugby player by the end of the week.
“Hopefully, if I do that, I’ll get up to speed reasonably quickly, but there’s no expectations or pressure, internally or from the coaches’ point-of-view, to take off immediately from where I left off.
“As long as I’m improving every week and getting better, hopefully I get some game time at some point, and then we’ll just go from there based off merit and how I’m playing.”
The mountainous challenge of not playing at all for over six months to featuring in what is effectively amateur provincial rugby, and then representing the All Blacks just two weeks later, was evident when Cane took to the field against the Eagles in Washington DC.
He, understandably, looked far from perfect in his side’s 104-14 thrashing of the hosts at FedEx Field, but the 75-test flanker didn’t shy away from acknowledging his lack of match fitness after such a lengthy injury lay-off.
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“You never take it for granted, pulling on the All Blacks jersey, but you certainly appreciate it a little bit more, getting it back on after, I suppose, just knowing how much hard work has gone in to get back there, so I loved it,” Cane said.
“Lungs and legs even got a little bit of a workout, even in the game that it was, and a little bit of rust in terms of the timing and stuff, but looking forward to another week of training with the side and getting better.”
The process of getting Cane to peak form and fitness has been aided by head coach Ian Foster’s decision to relieve him of captaincy duties,
Instead, that task has been handed to veteran lock Sam Whitelock in a move that enables Cane to focus on improving his game, and his body, to the standard required of him to lead the All Blacks, lead alone play for them.
Reshuffling the leadership role yet again this year – the All Blacks have had four different captains (Whitelock, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea and Brodie Retallick) in 2021 – is something that Cane has no qualms about.
In fact, the man who was appointed Kieran Read’s successor as All Blacks captain last year is embracing the reduced responsibility required of him on this tour before returning to normality in 2022.
“Pretty unique to have so many AB captains all assembled, all guys that have captained the team. I think it only puts the team in a better place in terms of the leadership,” Cane said.
“Overall, I think the squad’s creating awesome depth, but also awesome growth in terms of guys in the leadership space, so for me coming back, if I’m honest, it is nice to be able to come back and just focus on getting back to a high level of performing without having that added leadership responsibility.
“I think it’s just a good common sense decision. It doesn’t make sense for me to take that extra responsibility on when I haven’t got my own game exactly where I need it first.
“I’m still myself in here, helping out and chip in and lead where I can, but Sammy Whitelock’s got the big mantle and more responsibility at this stage.”
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