Sam Cane can still remember the exact moment All Blacks coach Steve Hansen told him he would be captaining the team for the first time.
It was at the World Cup four years ago. A few days before the Namibia match, Cane was walking to a barber’s for a haircut near the team hotel in London when Hansen jumped out of a taxi for a word.
“I went into that tournament with realistic expectations. Richie [McCaw] was skipper, so any game time I had would be awesome.
“[Hansen] said I was starting, which I was chuffed about, and then he followed it up by saying, ‘you’ll also be captain’. It wasn’t even on my radar. I can only liken it to when I was selected for the All Blacks for the first time. It was out of the blue and blew my mind.
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“The game was probably more difficult than what we anticipated and there was a lot of trouble at scrum time. I hadn’t captained the Chiefs in Super Rugby at that stage, so my experience of communicating with the referee and trying to get my point across was pretty poor, but it was a memorable experience.”
The now 27-year-old Cane considers himself lucky to still be playing rugby after breaking his neck in a test against South Africa in Pretoria last year.
The gist of it is this: Head caught in wrong position during ruck cleanout, vertebrae broken in two places and a slight dislocation.
The break was fixed by a steel plate and four screws, with the dislocated vertebrae pushed back “like the piece of a jigsaw puzzle”.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 28, 2019
Tough times for a tough young man. There’s no doubt it has changed his outlook.
“It has certainly made me appreciate playing rugby,” Cane says. “It’s helped me appreciate all the other things in life. Rugby is so important to me, but in that moment when I found out that I’d broken my neck, it was amazing that it didn’t matter any more. You think it means so much … all of a sudden, it was about life and quality of life. At the time, I was too scared to ask if I was going to be able to play rugby again. I was afraid I wouldn’t like the answer, so I waited a couple of days and they told me.”
After surgery the neck brace was supposed to come off after six weeks. A visit to the specialist put that back another six. None of it was easy and yet he knows it could have been so much worse.
“It didn’t take much to be thankful that I could get up and make my own breakfast. I know there are some people who have broken their necks and are wheelchair-bound for the rest of their lives. It put those things in perspective.”
So to say he’s happy and grateful to be here is putting it mildly.
Cane was lucky to get the best medical care but he also owes a debt of gratitude to the support of his family, particularly fiancee Harriet Allen, and his coaches at the Chiefs.
Assistant Tabai Matson was a big supporter during his comeback; donning a tackle suit and being hit 200 times in just over two weeks as Cane readied himself for a Super Rugby return against the Blues at Eden Park in May.
Cane took a couple of matches to rediscover his full confidence — it came a week later in his team’s remarkably gritty win over the Reds in Hamilton — and hasn’t looked back.
He was always considered good leadership material. It’s why he was admitted into the All Blacks’ leadership group after only two years with the team, a daunting experience for a young man when the room includes such players as McCaw, Conrad Smith and Dan Cater.
Fans don't get why all four punished players have received the same sanction at the World Cuphttps://t.co/yRkr5wmqOI
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 27, 2019
And it’s why this World Cup is different to the last for him and partly why he was so annoyed at not being able to return to the field after passing a concussion test during the 23-13 win over the Springboks in Yokohama last Saturday.
The openside flanker, who is building a cohesive and explosive partnership with fellow loosies Ardie Savea and Kieran Read, was adjudged to have taken too long to return to the field after the test, which was held in a room on the other side of the stadium. The law has since been amended and the 10 minutes allowed starts when the test begins.
“I was [annoyed] because if the officials had been in room and watched me. I couldn’t have passed the test any faster. I think because all your senses are heightened from playing, I had a better score than my baseline test.
“It’s a World Cup and all the training and things you do to stay in a position to play in a game like that — it was as close to a quarter-final as you can get — and to be denied the chance to play some minutes. They’ve put their hand up and it has changed, and that’s all you can really ask for. I’m glad we won.”
Cane, a key part of the All Blacks pack, will see his stocks rise even further once Read leaves New Zealand to play club rugby in Japan.
And if the All Blacks go the whole way here after they backed up their 2011 triumph with success four year years ago, well, it will be very different for Cane.
“All going well, I’d have more of a role. I only got 30 seconds in the final [in 2015]. I was due to go on earlier until Bender [Ben Smith] got yellow-carded and it changed things.
“In 2015, I was stoked with the way the tournament went. I got to play every game and captained the team for the first time. Four years on, I have more of a leadership role and I want to have a big influence on our performances.”
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