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The All Blacks stars in action in provincial rugby this weekend

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

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While the current crop of Australian-based All Blacks are in the midst of a well-earned break in the wake of their Rugby Championship success after five straight test matches, there are still a handful of All Blacks in action this weekend.

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In fact, the latest round of provincial matches will provide fans with one last chance to give some insight into how a few of New Zealand’s best players are tracking after months without action before their next test appearance against the United States in Washington DC on October 23.

Headlining that list of players is All Blacks captain Sam Cane, who will play his first match of rugby in more than six months this Saturday.

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After tearing a pectoral muscle while playing for the Chiefs against the Blues in March, Cane underwent surgery on his injured pec and one of his shoulders, leaving him sidelined for over half a year.

That has prevented the 29-year-old from taking to the field for the All Blacks thus far in 2021, but he will take his first steps towards returning to the test arena tomorrow in Taupo.

It’s there where Cane will make his long-awaited rugby comeback in a 40-minute cameo for King Country in the Heartland Championship against Whanganui at Owen Delany Park.

Cane’s appearance in New Zealand’s second-tier, amateur provincial competition was made possible because his NPC province, Bay of Plenty, is unable to play their scheduled match against Counties Manukau on Sunday due to Auckland’s Covid-19 lockdown.

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That looked to have denied Cane the chance to play any rugby at all before the All Blacks begin their end-of-year tour, as he and the other New Zealand-based All Blacks will fly out to the American capital next Thursday.

However, a conversation with fellow injured All Black Dane Coles, who still harbours ambitions to represent Horowhenua-Kapiti in the Heartland Championship, persuaded Cane to search for opportunities in the lower levels of the game in a quest for desperately-needed minutes.

King Country has answered those calls, which means Cane will run out onto FedEx Field against the USA Eagles with at least some kind of preparation under his belt.

Coles, who hasn’t played for the All Blacks since their 33-25 victory over the Wallabies in the opening Bledisloe Cup clash in Auckland in August, won’t join Cane in the Heartland Championship, but will make his first rugby outing in two months on Friday.

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The experienced 34-year-old has been named to start at hooker for Wellington in their NPC clash with Canterbury at Sky Stadium in the Kiwi capital.

In doing so, he takes the starting role off of James O’Reilly, who has been demoted to the bench in place of Tyrone Thompson.

The fixture presents Coles with his first opportunity to play since he was left in New Zealand by the All Blacks to recover from a troublesome calf injury that ruled him out just an hour before the kick-off of August’s second Bledisloe Cup test at Eden Park.

That match was also the last time veteran lock Sam Whitelock featured in a match of any kind, but that is also set to change when he faces off against Coles while playing for Canterbury in Wellington.

After captaining the All Blacks to a Steinlager Series sweep of Tonga and Fiji and back-to-back Bledisloe Cup victories over the Wallabies in Auckland, Whitelock didn’t travel with Foster’s squad to Australia as he awaited the birth of his third child.

The 32-year-old’s decision to remain in New Zealand for the entirety of the Australian-based Rugby Championship came after the country’s three-week nationwide lockdown in Alert Levels 3 and 4, which has starved him of action for almost two months.

It means Friday’s clash against the Lions will provide Whitelock, who will partner with ex-All Blacks lock Luke Romano in the second row, with some valuable minutes ahead of his likely comeback match against the United States.

Elsewhere, loose forward Shannon Frizell will make his final appearance for Tasman this season after having played for the Mako throughout their current NPC season.

Frizell wasn’t included in Foster’s travelling squad to Australia as he encountered visa issues relating to his three assault charges earlier this year.

Those charges have since been dropped, though, which has freed the 27-year-old, who last played for the All Blacks against Fiji in Hamilton in July, up to link back up with the national squad in Washington DC.

Before that, he will start at No 8 for Tasman, his fourth appearance for the province this season, in their Ranfurly Shield challenge against Hawke’s Bay in Napier on Saturday.

Meanwhile, uncapped lock Josh Lord, who was the only new player named to travel with the All Blacks on their end-of-year tour on Monday, will make his last appearance for Taranaki this season when they play Otago in Dunedin on Saturday.

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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