Sam Cane won’t feature again in Super Rugby Aotearoa this year and while he’ll prove difficult for the Chiefs to replace, it’s his absence for the All Blacks that will prove most intriguing.
In Mitch Karpik and Lachlan Boshier, the Chiefs have two experienced openside flankers ready to take over the No 7 jersey – though they’ve been sidelined this season through injury, which could see Luke Jacobson step in for the meantime.
At a national level, Cane’s absence may finally see spell the end of Ardie Savea being forced to play in the No 8 role, which could prove a blessing in disguise for Ian Foster in the final year of his initial contract.
Cane and Savea are two of the best players in New Zealand but we’re yet to really see them combine well in the black jersey.
Neither one deserves to be on the bench – or outside of the matchday squad altogether – and Foster has probably wracked his brain trying to determine the best way to use the two opensider flankers in one team.
There’d be an outcry if Savea weren’t starting, given his popularity with the fans, but Foster also won’t want to leave out captain Cane.
Cane’s injury, however, makes things a lot more simple.
Savea is not an international level No 8 and with Cane temporarily out of the picture, he’ll finally have the opportunity to string together a run of matches wearing No 7 – a jersey he’s only been entrusted with 10 times throughout his almost half-century of matches for the All Blacks.
Dalton Papalii is the obvious choice to back up Savea and is due a start against a top side to see if he can be as effective on the national stage as he has been for the Blues.
While there might be room in Foster’s first squad of the year for a third openside flanker, the reality is that the All Blacks are well stocked for the meantime, with Cane, Savea and Papalii all likely options for the 2023 World Cup.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 3, 2021
The bigger question concerns who will play on the blindside of the scrum and who will play at No 8.
Shannon Frizell is the incumbent No 6 but in a dozen or so match for the All Blacks, has never replicated his Super Rugby form. Akira Ioane, on the other hand, was plugging away at national selection for what’s felt like half a decade and when he finally got the opportunity last year, he did not disappoint.
Ethan Blackadder, free from injury, has finally confirmed his exceptional talent and is worth a call-up, probably at the expense of Crusaders teammate Cullen Grace.
That leaves tyros Hoskins Sotutu and Luke Jacobson to contest the No 8 jersey – though Jacobson could just as easily slot in on the blindside flank and is another excellent bench option.
There are other options, of course. Tom Robinson is once again turning it on for the Blues and Grace still has untapped potential – but the above six are arguably the form loose forwards playing in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Once Cane returns from injury, he and Savea can contest the openside flanker role and Foster can employ a horses for courses approach to selection based on the opposition, but New Zealand has too many supremely talented specialist blindside flankers and number 8s to justify employing Savea at the back of the scrum.
Cane’s injury shouldn’t have to be the catalyst for Foster picking specialist loose forwards but hopefully the captain’s absence will force the selectors’ hands.
It’s never good to see players unavailable through injury, but perhaps Cane’s absence will pave the way for New Zealand once again having one of the most feared loose forward trios in world rugby – it’s been a long time coming.
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