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FEATURE Who will be Robertson's choice as All Blacks captain?

Who will be Robertson's choice as All Blacks captain?
2 months ago

Super Rugby is at the halfway point, and it isn’t yet clear who, if anyone, has made a strong claim to be the All Blacks captain in 2024.

New coach Scott Robertson has said he’s not going to reveal his choice as leader until he unveils his first squad – to play England and Fiji – in late June.

Maybe by then, someone will have laid down an undeniable claim, but right now, there is no-one ticking all the relevant boxes, and Robertson may have to take a leap of faith when he comes to name his captain.

There is no perfect choice open to him, which is why, perhaps, he was hoping veteran lock Sam Whitelock was going to come home from France and resume his Test career.

Kieran Read and Richie McCaw
Kieran Read (left) was the obvious choice to succeed Richie McCaw after the 2015 World Cup, but Robertson’s decision is not so straightforward (Photo Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Whitelock was probably not an option to be captain, but had he not chosen to retire, the All Blacks’ most capped player would have been an astute and invaluable sounding board for whomever Robertson does name as skipper.

And in New Zealand, naming the captain is a huge decision – something any new coach must get right because the scrutiny of their choice will be intense and those who have got it wrong, have paid the price.

It’s a running joke that the three biggest jobs in New Zealand are All Blacks captain, All Blacks coach and Prime Minister – in that order.

So much goes into a successful coaching regime – but it is always true that any great All Blacks team has had a great captain.

No doubt that sounds ridiculous to those who don’t live in New Zealand, but those who have lived through those times when an All Blacks coach has not made the right choice as All Blacks captain, know it is not so far from the truth.

So much goes into a successful coaching regime – but it is always true that any great All Blacks team has had a great captain.

For some coaches, the choice has been easy.  It was obvious to Graham Henry when he came in as head coach in 2004 that Tana Umaga was the right man to lead the team, with Richie McCaw being groomed to take over.

When McCaw retired in 2015, Kieran Read had already been identified as his successor.

Sam Cane
Sam Cane has not always been a popular choice but was outstanding in New Zealand’s epic RWC quarter-final win over Ireland (Photo by Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

In 2020, Ian Foster took over as head coach, with both Sam Cane and Sam Whitelock in the running.

Both had captaincy experience, both had gravitas, and both were contracted through to 2023.

But the picture is nowhere near as clear for Robertson, whose shortlist is likely to include three names – Cane, Ardie Savea and Scott Barrett.

Robertson’s predecessors have taken a simple view as to what they want from their captain.

They want a player who is guaranteed selection when fit, and someone who can command respect with their team-mates and from opposition. They must be a capable communicator, and they need to be a realistic proposition to hold their place for the duration of an entire World Cup cycle. And they need to have a strong relationship – or at least be thought to be capable of developing a strong relationship – with the head coach.

In specific regard to Cane, though, there is a long list of unknowns. The first and most pressing question is whether Robertson rates Cane as a likely All Blacks starter or even as a regular squad pick.

One major caveat in the current climate is that Robertson will have to determine how he feels about his captain not having played in this year’s Super Rugby Pacific. That’s a genuine possibility as Cane – the incumbent – and Savea – the incumbent deputy – are both playing in Japan as part of sabbatical agreements with New Zealand Rugby.

Beauden Barrett, who has previously captained the All Blacks, is also enjoying a spell in Japan.

All three are eligible to play in July, but this sabbatical business remains a divisive issue in New Zealand as players who are based offshore are not supposed to be able to then represent the All Blacks.

Still, it’s become a part of the landscape and Robertson says he has recently been in Japan to catch up with various players and presumably he’s comfortable with the idea that his skipper in 2024 may not have proven their form in Super Rugby.

In specific regard to Cane, though, there is a long list of unknowns. The first and most pressing question is whether Robertson rates Cane as a likely All Blacks starter or even as a regular squad pick.

Scott Barrett
Robertson knows Scott Barrett well from the Crusaders and the lock is an automatic pick (Photo Franco Arland/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Cane wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea in the last World Cup cycle. His form ranged from quite brilliant in 2020 – when he was named New Zealand player of the year – to unconvincing in 2022 when he was under severe public and media scrutiny after the All Blacks lost three of their first five Tests and Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony famously called him “a shit Richie McCaw”.

Throughout 2022, some critics argued that Savea should have been playing in his preferred number seven jersey ahead of Cane, and captaining the side.

Others felt that that Blues openside Dalton Papali’i should have been picked ahead of Foster’s captain, and it was only when Cane produced a truly heroic performance against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final that the nation seemed to unanimously embrace the skipper.

Despite Cane’s up and down form over the years, it’s likely Robertson will want him in the squad, given his experience and leadership qualities.

Cane has shown when he’s fully fit, he’s a dynamic and crushing force. But he is 32 – relatively old for an openside – and only contracted until 2025. He’s also not played in Japan for weeks, having reportedly incurred a back injury.

Barrett is also a world-class player, respected by everyone and an absolute certainty to hold his place in the second row when fit. The big issue, though, is his occasional propensity to have daft moments of ill-discipline.

Maybe most significantly, Cane was unquestionably Foster’s man and Robertson may just want to put a full stop on that and make a fresh start with someone else.

That someone else could be Barrett, the Crusaders captain who Robertson worked so closely with when he was coach of the defending Super Rugby champions between 2017 and 2023.

Barrett and Robertson have a strong working relationship, and having only just turned 30, the former is seen as a good bet to go through to the next World Cup.

Barrett is also a world-class player, respected by everyone and an absolute certainty to hold his place in the second row when fit.

The big issue with Barrett, though, is his occasional propensity to have daft moments of ill-discipline, which is why he’s twice been red-carded in the international arena and also picked up a couple of costly yellows.

Ardie Savea
Ardie Savea led the All Blacks several times during the World Cup and is arguably the team’s most influential player (Photo Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Of less concern is that he picked up a serious finger issue a few weeks ago so hasn’t been able to put down a marker to show his form and readiness to lead the All Blacks.

Arguably the one man who has is Savea, but of course he’s done that for Kobe Steelers – and there are some in New Zealand who don’t yet feel the Japanese league is at the same level as Super Rugby.

As Savea said recently: “There’s a lot of talk of me being in this team [All Blacks] — I need to make the team first. I’m away, I’ve been watching Super Rugby and there’s some great players that are playing. We’ve got new coaching staff, so I have no idea what the pecking order is or what’s even happening. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

He’s right about the form of his back-row peers – Peter Lakai at the Hurricanes has been terrific, as has Billy Fulton at the Highlanders, Papali’i and his Blues understudy Anton Segner, plus Tom Christie at the Crusaders.

But for all that this group has played well, Savea is the current World Player of the Year and with 78 caps and the capacity to do just about anything on the field, he’ll be in the first squad of the year.

Captaincy is the last thing that’s on my mind. Being here has kind of given me a new perspective and, to be honest, it’s not even a focus.

He is another, whether he plays at No. 8 or openside, who commands a starting place and global respect. At 30, he too can go the distance through to 2027.

Given he’s also built experience as captain – having stood in for Cane many times during the last World Cup cycle – Savea is the man most people expect Robertson to announce as his captain.

Most people, except Savea himself, who said recently: “[The captaincy] is the last thing that’s on my mind. Being here has kind of given me a new perspective and, to be honest, it’s not even a focus.

“I’ve had a few conversations with Razor. Just around feedback on my game and what I’m doing, and what I need to improve on or work on.

“It’s been minimal but it’s all that I need over here in terms of how to be better, how to get better and what I’m doing well.

“It’s made me want to come back to New Zealand and really give it a crack.”

Comments

27 Comments
M
MitchO 77 days ago

It’s going to be Scott Barrett. He’s the coaches mate and captain of a previously elite team. Ardie a great option but scooter has worked with the coach and Ardie still as big a leader as needed.

B
Bull Shark 77 days ago

The article alludes to the fact that this isn’t about picking a captain. But picking a great captain.

So who would make for a great All Black captain - not just an obvious or safe shoo-in?

I’m not sure Ardie’s the guy and Barret doesn’t stand out either.

J
JD Kiwi 81 days ago

Ardie’s preferred position 7? Where do they get these writers from? I've no idea where he's playing in Japan, but the previous two seasons he wore the 7 jersey exactly twice.

N
Ngahana 83 days ago

Why not let the media decide. Like how they choose the head coach. Like most of us we entrust the rugby system to choose. A rugby team includes the coaches. It's collective.

T
Thomas 83 days ago

Billy Fulton 🤣🤣🤣🤣 garrrmon not even close

A
Andrew 83 days ago

Who the heck is Billy Fulton?

M
MattJH 83 days ago

Scott Barrett is a card waiting to happen, Cane has been out with injury as well as playing in Japan, I think they’ll go with in-Japan-but-still-the-man Savea.
Samisoni Taukeaho will be Captain after 2027, so he might get some Captain minutes against an Italy or Japan.

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