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Titanic tussle proves Sam Cane is still New Zealand's premier No 7

By Tom Vinicombe
Sam Cane. (Original photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

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As far as inspirational performances go, it’s hard to look past Sam Cane’s titanic 80-minute effort for the Chiefs on Saturday evening in their comeback win over the Crusaders in Christchurch.

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2021 was a year to forget for the 30-year-old after a pectoral injury suffered in the fifth round of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season cut his campaign with the Chiefs short.

Thanks to Covid’s impact on the rugby calendar, Cane wasn’t able to make a return to action until October, where he managed appearances for King Country and Bay of Plenty in New Zealand before he was whisked across the Pacific and joined the bench for the All Blacks in their exhibition match with the United States.

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Cane got through half an hour of action in his return to the test arena then chalked up two full games against Italy and France to round his season. All in all, the All Blacks captain managed the equivalent of about six 80-minute contests throughout 2021 and in his final game of the year – against a rampant Les Bleus side that was out for blood – it was evident that Cane was not quite at his best.

Fast forward almost four months, and Cane has led the Chiefs to what should go down as a famous victory in Christchurch. With just five minutes left on the clock and 11 points down, the Chiefs had absolutely no business snaring a win from the Crusaders and with the home team repelling wave after wave of attack, lesser teams would have cracked.

 

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The Chiefs didn’t crack, however, and on the back of some momentous performances from the likes of Brodie Retallick, Peter Gus Sowakula and captain Cane, they somehow managed to get themselves over the line for a first win in Christchurch since 2016.

Cane’s endeavour, in particular, is worth highlighting.

With the 77-cap All Blacks captain out of commission for much of last season, Dalton Papalii took over the mantle with the national side and rarely put a step wrong.

“He should be very, very proud of what he’s achieved,” head coach Ian Foster said of the 24-year-old’s breakthrough campaign in black.

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“He’s pretty battered and bruised after that Irish test but he’s put in some big games for us this year and really proven that he’s an international No 7.”

Papalii is set to for a long career with the All Blacks and some would argue that he’s effectively taken over as New Zealand’s premier openside flanker after the exploits of 2021. While that may be true if Cane weren’t able to rediscover the form that makes him such a fierce opponent on the field, the evidence at this early stage of the Super Rugby Pacific season is that the All Blacks captain is back for vengeance.

Cane’s defensive prowess has always been well known and over the opening rounds of the competition, the bruising tackler has done nothing to harm that image, landing in the Chiefs’ top two busiest tacklers for each of their three matches to date. Against the Crusaders, it was one crucial tackle on Bryn Hall in the 11th minute of the match that saved a likely try after the halfback had made a break inside the Chiefs 22. With the try line in sight, Cane brought Hall to ground and Chiefs fullback Emoni Narawa was able to get over the ball and secure a turnover.

Later in the game, Cane transitioned from preventing tries to creating them when he delivered the final ball to Shaun Stevenson for the winger’s second score of the match.

Receiving the ball out wide, Cane had the option to carry and attempt to draw in outside man Sevu Reece or simply deliver the pill to the speedster on the sidelines. The former option is what most players are taught as the go-to but Cane correctly judged that the only chance Stevenson would have of getting the ball over the line – with Will Jordan sweeping around in cover – would be by getting it into his hands as soon as possible.

It took some gymnastics from Stevenson, but the right wing was able to dot the ball down on the left-hand side of the field to spark the Chiefs’ comeback in the final minutes of the match.

The late-game as a whole was dominated by the Chiefs, who were able to hold onto possession and put pressure on the Crusaders defence. The Chiefs made 46 tackles in the first half, 30 more tackles in the third quarter and then just three further in the final 20 minutes of the game, whereas the Crusaders took their tackle count from 137 to 242 in the last quarter of the fixture.

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In hindsight, the Crusaders didn’t put as much pressure on the breakdown as they needed to in the final period of the match – the game was characterised perhaps by less endeavour on the defensive side of the ruck than we’ve become accustomed to over the opening weeks of Super Rugby Pacific. It’s worth noting, however, the incredible effort out in by the Chiefs forward in those final 20 minutes to ensure they held possession for as long as they did.

Just once in that final quarter did the Crusaders manage to turn over possession at a breakdown, with the bulk of the times the Chiefs lost possession down to individual errors. Every time a player went down with the ball, two or three supporting Chiefs were on hand to ensure the likes of Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie and Cullen Grace weren’t able to get their mitts on the ball. Led by some herculean efforts off the bench from Naitoa Ah Kuoi (19 breakdowns), Ollie Norris (15), Bradley Slater (15) and debutant George Dyer (14), the Crusaders struggled to get even a sniff of a turnover.

The man who topped the breakdown arrivals chart for the game, however, was captain Cane, who hit 31 throughout the course of the 80 minutes, with 19 of those coming in the second 40. In back to back efforts in the final six minutes, Cane’s contributions at the ruck were sizeable, with the Chiefs captain barrelling Sam Whitelock and Christie off the ball in the lead-up to Stevenson’s touchdown. It’s certainly easier being on the side that’s dominating possession but that can still take a big toll on the forwards – and Cane was up to the challenge from the opening minute of the match until the last.

If you needed any further evidence of Cane’s indominable engine, you need look no further than the 59th minute of the match when the Chiefs found themselves in possession of the ball inside their 22, with Stevenson wisely thumping the ball down the field and exit the danger zone. The ball eventually bounced to a stop inside the opposite 22 where Whitelock and David Havili were lying in wait. Whitelock delivered the ball to his vice-captain and Havili – under pressure from the Chiefs chase – thumped the ball up to halfway, resulting in a big territory gain for the visiting side. It wasn’t a winger or even a merchant of the backline who had put in the chase for the Chiefs, however, it was captain Cane.

Sam Cane has already proven time and time again that he can bounce back from even the most serious of injuries and while 2021 didn’t go to plan for the All Blacks flanker – or the New Zealand national side as a whole – Cane’s performances in the opening rounds of Super Rugby Pacific indicate that the 30-year-old still has plenty of gas in the tank. With plenty of matches ahead of him in 2022, expect the All Blacks captain to only get better.

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