Sam Cane is back for the Chiefs – and it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time.
Head coach Warren Gatland will be delighted to have Cane’s services once again, for the calming aspect if nothing else, as the Hamilton-based franchise looks to click into the gear after struggling to fire a shot across the first two weeks of competition.
Well-documented injuries have continued to ravage a Chiefs forward pack which is already under growing pressure with issues at lineout time, some uncanny handling errors and the inability to execute on many scoring opportunities that amount to more than a few points foregone.
By and large, it has all been quite average from the Chiefs so far in Super Rugby Aotearoa and it’s something they themselves admit to being angry about.
This situation isn’t new for Cane. In fact, it has happened many times throughout the course of his near-decade-long career at the Chiefs.
It’s not only the experience Cane has, far outweighing any other in the Chiefs forward pack and up there with the longest-serving players in Super Rugby, it’s also the 28-year old’s proven track record of being the man to ignite positive fortune thanks to pure physicality and an ability to have a consistent impact at the breakdown.
It happened just last year, when Cane immediately helped pick up the forward pack around him in a series of gruelling performances that the Chiefs came out the winning side of, including against the Crusaders in that classic comeback to beat the eventual Super Rugby champions 40-27 in Suva.
Winning in these areas will be key if the Chiefs are to come out on the winning side in Christchurch against a Crusaders side who are always strong over the ball and pack a lot of variation with the drive and lineouts.
For head coach Gatland, the influence that the 116-capped Chiefs loosie will bring is all about the fact that he has been there and done that, something few of the others in the loosie trio can say.
“It’s just about having that voice, Sam brings the leadership and experience which is huge for us right now with some of the experience that has been taken out due to injuries,” Gatland said.
“He will be demanding clarity and that we are accurate. That’s the challenge for us and it’s a big part of the Crusaders game so the communication that Sam brings with him is really important in that aspect.”
All eyes were on Cane earlier this week during a full-contact training session prior to the final team naming. It was imperative for Chiefs medics that the 28-year old got through the hit-out unscathed before making the final decision because had there been any niggles, Cane would’ve missed selection for the third week in a row.
Being the All Black captain and not wanting to take any extreme risks was certainly a factor in the cautious approach, but the nature of Cane’s back injury was such that continual flare-ups were occurring, mainly tightness in the back after taking contact.
After finally getting the all-clear, Cane’s imperativeness to the greater good at the Chiefs should likely be on full show this Saturday. Look for the calming influence Cane will have at set-piece, something that will be crucial for young lock Naitoa Ah Kuoi and hooker Bradley Slater as the Chiefs attempt to turn their woes at lineout time around.
Particularly in this area the delivery to the lineout hasn’t been so bad, more so the timing of the lifters. As a man who has been involved in hundreds, perhaps even thousands of lineouts in his time, Cane will know the right triggers to pull to get his forwards clicking plus he also has a good knowledge of how the Crusaders will combat the throws.
Experience, as nearly every coach will say, cannot be taught but its rewards can be immediately noticeable.
Cane’s return also completes the loose forward trio, for the most part. It would’ve been easy to push the 28-year old out to start in the No.8 jersey, and perhaps this may have happened had Luke Jacobson also been available or had Warren Gatland picked out and out openside Mitch Karpik.
Ironically, for all the injury woes, the Chiefs have now found themselves with a selection juggling act at flanker but Cane, like his head coach, knows that all it will take is a good performance to get the Chiefs somewhere close to being back in the saddle.
For the Chiefs and their fortunes moving forward, hopefully a good performance amounts to a win on Sunday, but at the very least it should be one where the execution is better.
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