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The elephant in the room with Sam Cane's All Black captaincy

By Hamish Bidwell
Ardie Savea and Sam Cane. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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It’s probably time to discuss the All Blacks’ specialist captain.

We all get why incoming head coach Ian Foster opted for Sam Cane.

Handsome and articulate, Cane is the ideal face for New Zealand Rugby (NZR). You might argue this country needs a more diverse representation at the helm right now, not to mention sprinkled throughout the coaching staff.

Again, though, you get how Cane got the nod. A loosie, like so many All Blacks captains before him, hailing from Chiefs country wouldn’t have hurt his chances either.

But what is a hindrance to him is the shadow cast by Richie McCaw.

It’s not just that McCaw, like Cane, was an openside flanker. Nor the similarity in looks and charm.

No, it’s the fact McCaw reeled off an astonishing 148 test appearances and was as good in the last of those as he was in the first. That creates an expectation about an All Blacks captain and what he’s capable of; an expectation that Cane is not equipped to live up to.

McCaw was, by and large, always the best player in his position in this country, which you would have to argue Cane is not. More than that, he had a durability that not only Cane can’t match, but most loose forwards across the board.

McCaw was the exception, not the rule, and the idea that Cane can or will do remotely similar is fanciful. Never mind the broken neck, or the back injury that’s sidelined him this season, Cane has a history of head knocks too.

With the best will in the world, there’s little in his playing pedigree to suggest Cane can be kept on the park between now and the 2023 Rugby World Cup and we haven’t even got to the issues of form or loose forward balance yet.

Just so there’s no confusion here or allegations of some keyboard warrior chopping down a tall poppy, Cane is a tremendous ambassador for our game. A guy who cares and tries and treats people with respect and who carries himself well and will – you imagine – excel at life after rugby and be a fine husband and father.

That’s not hyperbole. When you write about and talk to people for a living, you quickly work out which are the good ones and who are the bad.

Cane seems a terrifically good bloke but – to go back to the start – you wonder if the All Blacks can afford to carry a specialist captain.

Alternatives? Sure, I’ll give you one. I reckon Ardie Savea’s best spot is No.8, but I’m prepared to accept that he perhaps doesn’t have the height or bulk to be a genuine test great there.

Not that a lack of size has ever hampered Savea before.

But if we agree that 8 maybe isn’t his best test position, at least for argument’s sake, then I’d have Savea as openside and captain. Not that you imagine this coaching and selection group would entertain the idea of him there ahead of Cane.

It’s a measure of Savea’s talent that he could be New Zealand’s 2019 player of the year from the blindside flanker’s position. Sure, he packed at 8 on the All Blacks’ scrum ball, but 6 was the role he was cast in once Liam Squire made himself unavailable.

Surely that’s not going to be Savea’s permanent test spot which, given the captaincy situation, only leaves No.8.

Hoskins Sotutu has certainly impressed people from that position, while Marino Mikaele-Tu’u is a player with a similar skillset. Whether both become All Blacks remains to be seen, but they certainly have the potential.

As does Shannon Frizell at 6 and the emerging Cullen Grace. The luckless Luke Jacobson is still in the mix and let’s not forget the versatile Lachlan Boshier goes all right at blindside too.

There’s a bit of loose forward talent around when you consider Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane and Tom Robinson wouldn’t look out of place in All Blacks’ jumpers either.

It’s a big ask to think Cane will have one spot in the trio permanently locked down, with everyone else (including Ardie Savea) potentially taking turns in the other two.

Frankly, if any loose forward has earned the right to permanent possession of a jumper, then it’s Savea. But then he’s not the captain and is therefore unlikely to be afforded that privilege.

There’s certainly a lot to be said for being named skipper. Time will tell if it’s too much.



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