Back in March, new All Blacks head coach Ian Foster appointed Sam Cane as the fulltime captain replacement for Kieran Read. While the decision was met with mild apprehension at the time, that apprehension has now developed into full-blown criticism due to Cane’s supposedly under-impressive performances in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
The truth of the matter is, however, that while Cane hasn’t necessarily been setting the world alight for the Chiefs, the critics have been looking for him to shine in all the wrong places.
Much like his predecessor Richie McCaw, Cane isn’t a flashy player. If you’ve been expecting him to make rampaging runs in the midfield, throw backdoor offloads or set up tries then yes, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s not Cane’s schtick – it never has been.
Some of the new breed of loose forwards have added new strings to their bow. Ardie Savea is the obvious example of a player who, not content with just doing the less glamorous work, has taken his running game to the next level.
Savea is possibly the greatest player in New Zealand right now – his all-round game is second to none, at least among forwards. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Savea is the best openside flanker in the country, however.
It also doesn’t mean he’s not. While Savea is exceptional at picking up metres with his second-to-none leg drive, he’s also fantastic at all the core duties expected of someone wearing the All Blacks No. 7 jersey.
The question remains, however, does Savea’s advantage in the open field make up for Cane’s tight work that is seemingly overlooked by all and sundry when assessing the merits of the new All Blacks captain?
There’s no obvious answer to that puzzle but it’s something that Foster would have weighed up before appointing Cane as captain. Savea’s strengths are well-known and were on display regularly in 2019 for both the Hurricanes and the All Blacks.
Come that fateful semi-final against England, however, Savea’s destructive running was nowhere to be found. England’s forwards dominated their counterparts and Savea’s running game took a backseat.
That’s what happens when you come up against strong, motivated and passionate opposition – and it’s something that Foster’s coaching team will be contemplating ahead of any international fixtures. It’s the likes of England, Ireland, France and South Africa who Foster will be especially targeting as teams that could give the All Blacks a run for their money in the coming years.
In 2018, the former two gave NZ massive frights (with Ireland actually getting up over the men in black) and, of course, England then upset New Zealand at the World Cup.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 21, 2020
In that semi-final, Savea stood up on defence and was the top tackler on the night, while he also forced a clutch breakdown penalty. It was some impressive work from the Hurricane – but he didn’t attract anywhere near as much attention as he normally does simply because doing the dirty work is isn’t as noticeable as carving up metres on attack.
And while Savea didn’t let his team down by any means in that match, and was possibly the All Blacks’ best player on the night, a game dominated by tight work is Cane’s bread and butter and the Chiefs captain should have been on the field from start to finish, instead of being benched in favour of Scott Barrett. Unsurprisingly, the decision not to run with the Cane/Savea combo from the opening minute was one which Hansen regretted following the loss.
“If I turn round and say [the team selection] backfired, then Scott is going to feel pretty average,” Hansen said after the match. “So I’m not going to turn round and say it backfired. I’ll take that one on the chin.
“If we had our time again, we might consider doing something different.”
It’s not hard to infer from Hansen’s words that perhaps things didn’t go the way the selectors had expected. Notably, Cane still ended up as the All Blacks’ fifth-most prolific tackler on the night, despite getting just 40 minutes of game time.
So while it’s all well and good to suggest that Cane is underperforming in Super Rugby Aotearoa compared to the crop of talented young openside flankers that New Zealand is currently blessed with, that’s only if you’re focusing on the more easily consumable metrics.
Cane has made the most tackles of any Chiefs player over the three matches that he’s played of Super Rugby Aotearoa. Compared to the other openside flankers running about in the competition, he’s second only to Du’Plessis Kirifi in terms of tackles made relative to their teammates. Savea, who’s been packing down at number 8, is well down the list – but that’s also a product of the position he’s been playing. Of course, that position also presents him greater opportunities to get runs on the board, so there’s a trade-off.
Still, Cane lags only slightly behind Savea in terms of carries relative to teammates – and has the most relative carries of any openside flanker in Super Rugby Aotearoa over three rounds.
Tom Christie was turning heads early in the season after week upon week of exceptional performances.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 20, 2020
While metres gained fall unsurprisingly in Savea’s favour, that’s partially because the hulking Hurricane loose forward has a handful of linebreaks to his name. The Hurricanes wisely often position Savea in the outer channels during phase play where the defensive line is more disjointed, and the former sevens player can make the most of his pace, strength and acceleration. That’s clearly not a strength of Cane’s game – but it’s also not a role that many openside flankers would be asked to take on. Certainly, McCaw was rarely used by the All Blacks in the wider channels, and it’s become a job for the All Blacks’ hookers and either blindside flanker or eight-man in recent times.
Savea can still very much fill this role for the New Zealand national side – in the same jersey that he’s been wearing for the Hurricanes. That leaves Cane to focus on the duties he’s best at – slogging up the ball close to the action to create space out wide for the more explosive ball carriers.
In terms of general work around the field, Cane hits more breakdowns than any other loose forwards and has no qualms getting his head stuck in darks spaces so that other players can exploit the gaps he helps create with his breakdown play.
While Cane hasn’t been as prodigious as nabbing steals at the breakdown, that can partially be accredited to the fewer games he’s played under the new law interpretations, as well as to the fact that like McCaw in his latter years, that’s not a massive focus of his game compared to other openside flankers.
And to all the shock jocks who have questioned Cane’s abilities not as a player but as a captain, you only have to look to the recent player polls to see how highly regarded the Chiefs flanker is. 24% of the NZ Super Rugby players surveyed said Cane was the most respected player in the country (ahead of Brodie Retallick, Savea and Dane Coles). He was also voted the toughest player in the country, in a landslide victory (again, ahead of Retallick and Savea).
While there would have naturally been some players unhappy with Cane’s appointment – as there would have been with any appointment – it’s clear that the man is a natural leader and is esteemed amongst his peers.
Sam Cane may not be the best player in New Zealand – he may not even be the best loose forward in New Zealand – but he’s an exceptionally important cog in the All Blacks machine who has proven time and time again that he deserves the jersey and deserves the captain’s armband.
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