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Why Sam Cane could play in the Heartland Championship this weekend

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

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It has been over six months since All Blacks captain Sam Cane last took to the rugby field after he sustained a serious pectoral injury while playing for the Chiefs against the Blues in March.

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Without the services of their skipper, the All Blacks have called upon numerous different figures to fill the leadership void.

Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea and Brodie Retallick have all acted as captain during Cane’s injury-enforced sideline stint throughout the July test series, Bledisloe Cup and the Rugby Championship.

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Ian Foster and Ardie Savea react to last minute loss to Springboks
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Ian Foster and Ardie Savea react to last minute loss to Springboks

However, Cane could resume his captaincy duties as early as this month when the All Blacks embark on their end-of-year tour of the United States and Europe.

Cane was among four All Blacks and one uncapped prospect called into the national squad on Monday for the tour, and after such a prolonged stint without action, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see the 29-year-old given game time in the opening match of the tour against the USA Eagles in Washington DC on October 23.

Minutes against the tier two minnows would serve Cane well, especially as he hasn’t been able to take to the field for Bay of Plenty in the NPC after Covid-19 disrupted New Zealand’s provincial season throughout August and September.

However, going into a test match cold after more than half a year without any action could also be counter-productive, which is why both Cane and All Blacks head coach Ian Foster are eager to get back into the swing of things before the tour kicks-off.

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The problem is, though, that Cane’s Bay of Plenty side are without a game this weekend as their scheduled clash against Counties Manukau on Sunday has been postponed due to Auckland’s lockdown restrictions.

Cane, and the other New Zealand-based All Blacks called into the squad, will then travel to Washington DC next Thursday, meaning this weekend presents the only opportunity for him to get any minutes under his belt prior to the USA test.

That’s why Foster is looking to the Heartland Championship, New Zealand’s second-tier amateur provincial competition comprised of the country’s smallest unions, in a bid to get Cane the preparation he needs.

“He won’t play [for Bay of Plenty this weekend], so we’re looking around to see whether he might be available to play a game of Heartland rugby,” Foster said on Monday.

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“I’m not sure on the latest on that, but he’s desperate to do that, and so we’ll see how the bureaucratic cogs chug their way through that one.”

Regardless of whether he plays for the likes of Thames Valley or King Country in round four of the Heartland Championship this weekend, Cane remains a contender to captain the All Blacks against the Eagles at FedEx Field in just under three weeks’ time.

That being said, a decision on who will lead the All Blacks in that test – and the test against Wales in Cardiff a week later – will only be made once Foster has assessed how where players are at after this week’s break and next week’s training camp on the Sunshine Coast.

“At the moment, we’re going to go with the status quo,” Foster said.

“The players we’re bringing over are joining this group, so as far as I’m concerned, this is the status quo that we’ve got right here, so Ardie will carry on leading this team in the short-term future.

“Once we get to Washington and Wales and make some assessments on where the other guys are at, then we’ll let people know, but clearly we’ve got some really good leaders in this team and Ardie’s done a great job.

“Sam Whitelock was outstanding before in the early part of the year, and, Sam Cane, I think we’re likely just to let him come back into the environment for those first two or three weeks.

“He’s got to get his own confidence and find his own feet, so we will juggle that as we go along, but we’ve got a clear plan around that. We just want to assess those guys when they come in.”

Foster also confirmed few players will travel to London a day before the All Blacks play the United States in order to prepare for the Welsh test.

“The variables are so much different and travel is so much more complex than what it used to be and how we have to have people together in sort of soft quarantining situations, so, really, we have changed a few plans over the last few months about that,” Foster said.

“We were going to bring the players who were going to join us, they were going to come to Australia and get involved in our camp next week.

“That won’t happen, and so we didn’t think we could afford to keep them out of the environment for too long.

“We do have the ability to send a smaller group up on the Friday before the USA game to send them to London 24 hours earlier, which we will be doing, but, the rest of it, the group will basically stay pretty tight.”

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