When Sam Cane left the field against Argentina with 13 minutes to play and the All Blacks seven points adrift of their opposition, barely an eyebrow was raised.
The substitution marked the third time this season that captain Cane had been benched late in a match with his men behind on the scoreboard.
Against South Africa at Ellis Park, with 11 minutes left on the clock, the All Blacks scored two converted tries and turned a narrow defeat into a 12-point victory. In matches against Ireland and Argentina, however, the late change had no impact on the result, with NZ falling to historic losses on both occasions.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster has never criticised his captain, nor attributed the substitutions to Cane’s on-field performances.
“I just felt we needed some fresh legs, just trying to keep momentum going,” Foster said of the decision to take Cane off when the All Blacks were down by three points against Ireland in the third and final Test of the July series with 16 minutes remaining.
“It wasn’t reflective of him or his leadership. We’d got momentum then we’d lost it back again and I just felt we needed to make a couple of tweaks.”
Against the Pumas, Foster suggested that the substitution was a tactical move to get more ball carriers on the park: “We just felt we needed a bit more power in our carry stuff so it was really a decision to take a fetcher off and put a ball carrier on.”
Whatever the case, it’s become a clear trend in how the All Blacks use their captain – and one that looks likely to continue this weekend in the rematch with the Argentina, with Dalton Papali’i now joining the bench in place of said ball-carrier, Akira Ioane.
It’s also a massive switch-up from the past, when All Blacks captains were rarely pulled from the field – and almost never when the team was behind on the scoreboard.
In fact, at no point throughout their careers did Reuben Thorne, Richie McCaw or Kieran Read – or the vast majority of their predecessors – leave the field while the All Blacks were staring down the barrel of a defeat.
Clearly he is under the spotlight. We are all under the spotlight when things don’t go well. But behind the scenes, [he remains] strong.
Only once during Thorne’s tenure as captain did the loose forward leave the pitch – in a 91-7 thrashing of Tonga at the 2003 Rugby World Cup. McCaw left the field as captain far more regularly but the slimmest margin the All Blacks had when he did depart was a 13-point buffer against England in 2008 (McCaw hobbled off injured after 28 minutes). That same margin was also the smallest of Read’s tenure when the No 8 was called to the sidelines – again, through injury – in the 48th minute of an eventual 38-18 pasting of France in 2017.
Tana Umaga, in contrast, did leave the pitch on one occasion while the All Blacks were behind on the scoreboard – against the Springboks in 2005 – but that was also only due to injury. On the other three occasions that Umaga was substituted, NZ were up by 18, 49 and 91 points.
Cane has had his position as both captain and starting No 7 called into question by many a critic and while the various arguments thrown out hold some merit, Foster has backed the 30-year-old through thick and thin.
“Clearly he is under the spotlight,” Foster said this week. “We are all under the spotlight when things don’t go well. But behind the scenes, [he remains] strong.
“I thought a lot of his tackle and work around the breakdown was a big shift up in the last two games, and we are pleased with that.”
And while you can appreciate Foster’s ostensible stubbornness, the head coach’s decision to bring Cane from the field late in matches does undermine his words somewhat.
The likes of McCaw and Read, in particular, were impossible to leave out of the All Blacks starting line-up and were only ever absent when they needed a rest or had already done enough to earn their side a win. In the final 10 minutes of a match where you were trailing by a handful of points, there were no better men to have on the park, both in terms of their playing ability and their leadership.
Foster has clearly decided that the same cannot be said for Cane.
Unless the relationship between a captain and a referee has broken down during a match, there are rarely benefits from switching leadership roles partway through a game but that’s the situation the All Blacks now find themselves in.
If Foster believes Cane is the right man to lead the All Blacks and the right man to wear the coveted No 7 jersey, he should also have enough confidence to leave him on the park for the entire 80 – especially when behind on the scoreboard, when the team is most in need of their leader.
Foster and senior hooker Dane Coles both defended Taylor after his error-ridden display, suggesting that many of the issues that came to the surface in the final quarter of the Test was a product of the forward pack as whole, not just the man wearing the No 16 jersey.
Benching Cane isn’t the only curious decision Foster has made with his reserves in recent weeks.
While Foster explained following the loss to Argentina that props Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax needed replacing at around the 50-minute mark due to wear and tear, taking Samisoni Taukei’aho off for the out-of-form Codie Taylor was a less justifiable call.
“Ethan had a tightening calf and Tyrel had a quad knock,” Foster said. “Just talking to the coaches, there was a belief that when we changed the two props that changing the hooker, that combination was something that worked for us [against South Africa in Johannesburg], and that’s why we went that way.”
Foster and senior hooker Dane Coles both defended Taylor after his error-ridden display, suggesting that many of the issues that came to the surface in the final quarter of the Test was a product of the forward pack as whole, not just the man wearing the No 16 jersey. Lo and behold, however, 10 of the 12 forwards that featured against Argentina have retained their spots for this weekend, with just Taylor and Ioane dropping out of the 23.
Stephen Perofeta, meanwhile, got 50 seconds off the pine for his Test debut and also won’t feature this week.
The overall messages coming out of the All Blacks camp are muddled, unclear and at times likely disingenuous. That’s perhaps inevitable when things aren’t going the way that Ian Foster and his senior leaders would have expected, but it’s making it harder and harder to get a real grasp on what’s working for the team in 2022 and what’s not.
If established players aren’t performing to the standard required then a call needs to be made on their place in the squad. If Sam Cane is the right man to captain the All Blacks then Foster needs to back him to get the job done for the full 80 minutes and call upon him to step up when the chips are down.
Richie McCaw and Kieran Read would never have allowed themselves to be pulled when the outcome of a match was still undecided, especially when trailing on the scoreboard, and any captain of the All Blacks should demand the same respect.
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