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McCaw was an automatic selection after injury, but Sam Cane is not

By Campbell Burnes
(Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

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The All Blacks’ loose forward jigsaw puzzle is already doing my head in, so one can only imagine how it is exercising the minds of Ian Foster and John Plumtree as they contemplate another stretch of five tests in five weeks.

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The arrival of Sam Cane and Shannon Frizell in the USA bolsters the back-row depth but also serves to muddy the waters as the All Blacks seek answers as to who might be their best loose trio.

As captain designate at the start of the season until he needed pectoral and shoulder surgery, and coming off one of his best seasons in black (2020), Cane would have counted as an automatic selection. There would have been, all things being equal, room for both him and Ardie Savea in any starting XV.

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But how times have changed in 6-7 months. Cane joins the group with just 57 minutes for the King Country Rams under his belt. He is a senior leader but does he really need to wear the captain’s armband in the big tests later in the tour, Ireland and France, in particular?

That pre-supposes that he will swiftly get up to test rugby speed again and that he shoots to the top of the openside flanker ranks, no given with Savea and Dalton Papali’i as proven options in that No 7 jersey.

Richie McCaw was always an automatic selection coming back from injury, but Cane is not automatic.

Sam Whitelock can slot in as captain as if to the manor born, as we saw in July and August. That said, Cane is more than capable of forcing his way in by the France test on November 20. The man himself is expecting no preferential treatment on the basis of his 2020 body of work in black.

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Just where Cane fits in will depend on the loose forward mix, and perhaps how many lineout options they opt for – two in the loosies is desirable – not to mention the opposition.

Wales, even not quite at full strength, Ireland and France will be the major internationals on this tour.

At first glance, the eight loose forwards – hell, the 1976 team to South Africa, the last time the All Blacks have been away for three continuous months, included just six loosies for their 24 matches – appear to be overloaded with blindside flankers, now that Frizell has joined the mix.

Below’s numbers show the versatility and options with the player’s preferred jersey number listed first.

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Hoskins Sotutu: 8, 6
Ardie Savea: 7, 8
Luke Jacobson: 6, 8, 7
Sam Cane: 7, 8, 6
Dalton Papali’i: 7, 6, 8
Ethan Blackadder: 6, 7, 8
Akira Ioane: 6, 8
Shannon Frizell: 6, 8, 5

Hoskins Sotutu appeared to have badly dropped off the pace, but rallied with a strong outing in the second Pumas test. The consistent Luke Jacobson has performed with panache and vigour whenever given a chance, and now appeals as a solid lineout option at two.

Papali’i has not played in five weeks, and is not yet a certainty in the starting pack, but is well equipped to win ball in the air and on the ground.

Ethan Blackadder is the wildcard, possessed of a big engine and heart and, while best in the No 6 jersey, as opposed to the openside, is now putting serious heat on Akira Ioane after a big Rugby Championship.

I have already been on record saying that Ioane needs to start at least three of these northern tests to again put his case as the best No 6 in the land. His growing reputation as an international class player took a hit against the Boks, but he is worth persevering with.

Frizell is the closest to the Jerome Kaino prototype that is spoken of in reverential tones. The Highlander was the best No 6 in Super Rugby, but his court case has ruled him out of the Rugby Championship. He has ground to make up.

If pushed to name the starting loosies by the France test, how about: Savea, Cane (not as captain) and Ioane with Jacobson in the No 20 jersey?

I can feel that headache coming on again…

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McCaw was an automatic selection after injury, but Sam Cane is not

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