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RUGBYPASS+ Sam Cane primed for All Blacks' big finish

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Sam Cane primed for All Blacks' big finish

Sam Cane’s imminent debut for King Country was Dane Coles’s idea.

The unique scenario of an All Blacks captain playing Heartland rugby – one which may never happen again – came about when the pair, returning to the game from long-term injuries and about to re-join the national team in Washington DC ahead of the Northern tour, recently texted each other about their respective rehabilitations.

Hooker Coles, recovering from a calf problem, is set to return for Wellington against Canterbury this weekend, whereas Cane, the All Blacks skipper returning from a six-month lay-off due to a pectoral injury and shoulder reconstruction, had apparently hit a roadblock just as he was about to get going again.

Cane has been training with Bay of Plenty for the past month but Covid, as it tends to do, got in the way. Bay of Plenty’s NPC opposition this weekend were supposed to be Counties Manukau, but, based in locked down Auckland as Counties are, that was a no-go.

Plan B was an elegant one and came care of a canny member of New Zealand’s front row society.

Sam Cane hasn’t clocked up any minutes on the field since pulling on the Chiefs jersey during Super Rugby Aotearoa. (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

“There was no rugby on, even though I’ve been working away for six months to get to the stage of playing again,” Cane tells RugbyPass in an exclusive interview. “Dane Coles and I were texting, asking each other how we were tracking with injuries. I told him the situation and he texted back: ‘You should go and play Heartland’.

“I didn’t know how serious he was but I thought that was a pretty good idea. I bounced the idea off Fozzie [All Blacks coach Ian Foster] and he was all for it. King Country is a good fit for me based on where I grew up. It’s very close to Reporoa and it helps that they’re having a home game.”

All of which is why Cane, a veteran of 74 tests, is scheduled to turn up for training with King Country in Mangakino at 7 o’clock on Thursday night and why he will start for the Rams in their home game against Whanganui in Taupo on Saturday afternoon.

“I’ll get to training nice and early to meet all the fellas and try to learn a few moves and lineouts before we get on the field so it’s not too much of a hassle for them out there,” he said.

“I’m honestly really looking forward to it. It will be cool. I love grassroots footy and what it’s all about – guys who are genuinely playing for the love of the game and are passionate about it. Obviously training kicks off at 7pm because these fellas are working full days and have to travel.

“They’re obviously pretty committed to footy and to their province and I’m really looking forward to rubbing shoulders with them.”

The plan for Cane’s return is 40 minutes to allow his body to get used to the rigours of the game again. His last game was for the Chiefs against the Blues on March 27, and his next playing assignment after the King Country match is likely to be the test against the United States at FedEx Field on October 24.

Cane, due to fly out for the USA next Thursday alongside Coles, Sam Whitelock, Shannon Frizzel and shock new call-up Josh Lord, is grateful for the opportunity and the work Bay of Plenty has put into him – particularly forwards coach Richard Watt. “They’ve been outstanding and I’m very thankful for it,” he said.

“One of the bonuses with my shoulder was that I could get running reasonably early. I’ve got plenty of kilometres in the legs, but, far out, the last few weeks getting back into some serious contact is a whole other level of fitness. I won’t have any massive expectations on myself, I’ll just get out there and enjoy what’s going to be a pretty cool and unique occasion.”

The plan for Cane’s return is 40 minutes to allow his body to get used to the rigours of the game again. His last game was for the Chiefs against the Blues on March 27, and his next playing assignment after the King Country match is likely to be the test against the United States at FedEx Field on October 24.

After such a long lay-off which has included his absence from 10 tests this year, including the recent Rugby Championship in Australia, it will come as no surprise to hear Cane is looking forward to join the All Blacks again.

“The timing of my injury was pretty cruel,” he said. “When it went from my pec to a shoulder reconstruction, everything had to go perfectly for this tour to come about for me. It has gone really well – no hiccups, thankfully, so I’m pretty grateful to have the opportunity to link back up with the team. It will be a good way to finish the year.”

Ardie Savea will retain his role as captain of the All Blacks, despite both Sam Cane and Sam Whitelock returning to the set-up in the coming weeks. (Photo by Patrick Hamilton/AFP via Getty Images)

Cane said there was no set plan for how many tests he would play on the Northern tour – after the USA test the All Blacks play Wales, Italy, Ireland and France – but added: “I’d be pretty keen to play the first one – I think it would be a good introduction to get back into pulling the All Black jersey on, but I’m pretty realistic about expectations on myself. I’ve been out for so long and also [that relates to] how well the team and many individuals have been playing. I’ll try to fit in and help out and push my case. I’ll just be pretty stoked to be there.”

Head coach Foster recently went on the record as saying Cane wouldn’t immediately take over the captaincy and the man himself is on board with that.

“One of the key factors in being skipper is being out to go out and lead and play really well. It’s probably a bit unfair to put that pressure on myself after six months out and 40 minutes of Heartland rugby under my belt. That’s all good. They’ve been going well so I’ll just try to help out when I can and push my case in the last couple of weeks after getting a bit more training at that level under belt.”

After sweeping the Wallabies in three tests and more good performances in two tests against Argentina, the All Blacks were given a reminder about the realities of test rugby by the world champion Springboks. After escaping with a 19-17 victory over the Boks in Townsville, the All Blacks let slip a slim lead in the final minutes of their rivals’ 31-29 victory on the Gold Coast recently.

Watching from afar, but with obvious direct links with the team, Cane said overall the All Blacks would be satisfied with their work in Australia over the past five weeks.

We had the ball with 20-odd seconds to go, 40 metres out from our line. Again, that’s something they’ll no doubt talk about because you’d hate for that to happen at a World Cup.

Cane on the All Blacks’ agonising loss to the Springboks over the weekend

“I think they’ll be happy. We’ve made some good progress and it’s really highlighted the different strengths you have to have depending on the opposition you play. Aussie like to play the same brand as us and obviously we’re pretty good at playing that. Obviously, there is a different challenge with the Springboks and I’m picking some of these Northern Hemisphere teams will be the same. There will be great lessons from these games – hopefully we can learn from them and do better.

“They’ll obviously be massively disappointed with the last one, especially with it being so close,” Cane said of the All Blacks. “We had the ball with 20-odd seconds to go, 40 metres out from our line. Again, that’s something they’ll no doubt talk about because you’d hate for that to happen at a World Cup.”

Asked whether, with the benefit of hindsight, the All Blacks may have been better to give the ball back to the Boks on their own line rather than trying to run down the clock with their pack only for referee Matthew Carley to give what appeared to be a harsh penalty against replacement hooker Asafo Aumua for “sealing off” a breakdown, Cane said the All Blacks’ pack would always back themselves to retain the ball for a certain amount of time.

“We had this with Bay of Plenty with the Ranfurly Shield recently – but you can go back to the 2011 World Cup final when the All Blacks held the ball for many minutes at the end. I think when Ardie [Savea] made that awesome run off the back of the scrum, there was about a minute on the clock then. As a forward pack, we should be able to back ourselves to hold on to the ball for a minute.”

When prompted about Carley’s decision to penalise Aumua, an act which provided the platform for the Boks to kick deep into the All Blacks’ territory and, after the lineout, earn the offside penalty for Elton Jantjies’ match-winning penalty, Cane said: “I agree, it was a pretty tough penalty… and Aumua is pretty close to the ground as it is… [but] we often think that two minutes is the maximum amount of time as a pack that you can hold the ball in that area. It was good to see them use the ball – it made for an incredible test match.”

Elton Jantjies
Elton Jantjies of the Springboks and Herschel Jantjies embrace after their hard-fought win over the All Blacks. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Reflecting on five tough tests in five weeks in Australia, Cane said the effort required to maintain a consistent intensity would be among the biggest lessons for a side building under Foster’s second year in charge.

“Without a doubt. That’s where the biggest growths can be made and the All Blacks are about performing every single week. We didn’t get that bit right last year on a couple of occasions and it hurt. It’s a massive challenge for that group – we’re always building and trying to get it right for the World Cup and it’s similar, the mental fortitude and preparation that you need because that’s what World Cups are about. It’s probably good for us.”

Asked about the All Blacks’ struggles in the set-piece over two tests against the Boks, Cane said: “It’s not that we don’t know it but it certainly highlights the importance of the set-piece. You have to be winning about 90 per cent of your own ball and be able to disrupt the opposition’s, which we did because that’s where Brad Weber’s try came from [in the second test]. It’s just a huge part of rugby and test footy in particular.

“And the kicking game – having a back three that can defuse that, because it just nullifies a massive part of their attacking arsenal.”

When it was suggested that the All Blacks’ kicking game wasn’t as good as South Africa’s, Cane replied: “No, it wasn’t, and I think the way the Boks coach [Jacques Neinabar] used his subs, too, played a massive part on the game.”

He has all the physical attributes you’d want. He’s fast and strong and he’s building strength. He’s been with us almost two years now and he’s pretty tough for a young fella.

Cane on new All Blacks call-up Josh Lord

Cane has been thrilled with the performance of Savea this year, who has deputised in his absence along with Whitelock, saying the loose forward probably played his best game of the year in the defeat to the Boks. “He was outstanding,” he said, adding that the extra responsibility had helped his game, something that bodes well for the future.

Speaking of which, the call-up of 20-year-old Taranaki and Chiefs lock Josh Lord as cover after Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu travelled home from Australia, was greeted with excitement by Cane, who is a big fan.

“He has all the physical attributes you’d want,” he said of Lord. “He’s fast and strong and he’s building strength. He’s been with us almost two years now and he’s pretty tough for a young fella. He’s off a farm and his old man [Matt, also a lock] played a lot of years for Northampton under Wayne Smith. It’s crazy, the Chiefs have gone from having poor old Mitch Brown at lock to having three All Blacks locks next year [Lord, Brodie Retallick and Tupou Vaa’i].

“He’s certainly one for the future and I know in the Chiefs ranks everyone’s been pretty excited about him for a couple of years.”

Probably, but maybe not as excited as their hugely respected skipper returning to the game after yet another long lay-off following a serious injury – a tough journey this year which could start for Cane in Taupo and finish on the Stade de France pitch in Paris.

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