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'With the greatest respect to Sam Cane': NZ great weighs in on No. 7 debate

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

All Blacks great Ian Jones has questioned whether Sam Cane will be “good enough” to wear the coveted No. 7 jersey during key matches at next year’s World Cup.

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New Zealand captain Cane was ruled out of the All Blacks’ end-of-season tour after he picked up an injury during the win over Japan in October.

Openside flanker Dalton Papali’i was given his best opportunity yet to make the famous black jersey his own, and he took every chance to shine with both hands throughout the tour.

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Papali’i was in fine form during the All Blacks’ thrilling win over Scotland at Murrayfield, before starring once again in the dramatic 25-all draw with England.

With the All Blacks’ World Cup opener against France less than 10 months away, former Test lock Jones said Cane has to be part of the squad – but hinted that he’d be better utilised during “pool games.”

“To have Sam Cane, highly respect within the playing group of the All Blacks, highly experienced at the pool games that we’re going to have to use him for,” Jones said on SENZ on Sunday.

“Quite possibly (it’s time for a captaincy change) because he’s got to be given the opportunity to make that Test spot or captaincy his own.

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“But Dalton Papali’i has made huge strides so he also has to be given the opportunity to wear that seven jersey for those key games.

“Injury is going to be a factor, we know that, experience is going to be a factor, we know that. We’ve got a very experienced openside flanker in Sam Cane who can be part of the squad.

“Whether he’s good enough to play those key matches that we really want him to play, well it’s over to them.”

The No. 7 jersey is arguably the most famous in the history of New Zealand rugby – having been worn by greats of the game including Richie McCaw and Michael Jones.

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Well, Papali’i has done the black jersey justice throughout his three consecutive starts on the Northern Tour.

In his last start against England at Twickenham, the 25-year-old stunned the England crowed as he showed of his rugby IQ – intercepting a pass to run in the first try of the Test.

Papali’i made 13 tackles without missing any against traditional rugby rivals England, and he also ran for 60 metres from four carries.

Throughout the last three Test matches, Papali’i has finished in the top two for tackles made by an All Blacks player twice.

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Jones believes Papali’i has made the “biggest” strides of any All Black against Northern Hemisphere opponents during their end-of-season tour.

“I think he’s made the biggest, hugest strides,” Jones said.

“With the greatest respect to Sam Cane… I know they’re different players but would Sam Cane have scored the Dalton Papali’i try?

“Sam Cane would have done some great work at the breakdown equally as so, but the balance that they had (against England) with Ardie Savea, the athletic, industries Ardie Savea at eight, really hard working blindside flanker in Scotty (Barrett).

“Just the size, strength and energy of Dalton Papali’i, he could’ve gone and I was surprised he didn’t go the whole eighty. I do believe he made a difference when he left the field.”

While the All Blacks’ season came to an end with a frustrating final 10 minutes against England, which saw the hosts score three tries to earn a once unlikely draw, they’ve come a long way in 2022.

After losing historic Test matches against Ireland and Argentina in New Zealand, the All Blacks went on to win the Rugby Championship and to retain the Bledisloe Cup.

They finished their year on a seven-Test unbeaten run, dating back to their 50-point win over Los Pumas in Hamilton.

Selection headaches will undoubtedly become a hot topic of discussion throughout the off-season, as the attention of the rugby world begins to shift towards France 2023.

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