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FEATURE Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks
1 month ago

The old joke in New Zealand is that the most important job in the land is that of All Blacks captain, followed by All Blacks coach and then the Prime Minister.

It doesn’t reflect well on New Zealand that it really isn’t that much of a joke, but arguably a truism about how much more the nation is invested in the leadership of their rugby team than they are the running of the country.

With that in mind, while it wasn’t necessarily surprising, it was certainly big news that Sam Cane, the All Blacks captain between 2000 and 2023, announced he will be retiring from international rugby at the end of the year.

As part of that announcement, he confirmed he will not be continuing as All Blacks captain – a decision that he appears to have made as much as it may have been made for him.

It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson.

Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role.

Sam Cane
Sam Cane put in a Herculean performance against Ireland in the World Cup quarter-final (Photo David Ramos/Getty Images)

Partly that’s because he wasn’t the sort of all-action, scavenging openside flanker that New Zealanders love. Cane was more of a No 6.5 than an out-and-out No 7 and his destructive defence and strong carries close to the ruck were loved by his peers and coaching staff, but much harder for the public to appreciate.

And then there was his association as being former coach Ian Foster’s man. Foster himself was not a universally popular choice as All Blacks coach between 2020 and 2023 and many felt that Cane came to epitomise what was, by historic comparisons, an era of relative underperformance.

Both coach and captain spent much of their time together under intense public and media pressure, particularly so in mid-2022 when the All Blacks lost a home series to Ireland and then tests against South Africa and Argentina which meant, at one point, they had only won three of their last nine tests.

The criticism of Cane was fierce at times, with some commentators believing he didn’t merit a starting position in the team, while former England first-five, Stuart Barnes, even went as far to say that the All Blacks captain wouldn’t make the Italian team.

There’s times that it hurt him, I think he’s expressed that. There were times he was a bit bewildered by it.

Ian Foster on criticism of Sam Cane

It was a tough period for a player whose dedication, bravery and passion for the game and for the job, were beyond reproach and Foster, on hearing the news that Cane would be retiring later this year, told ZB radio: “There’s times that it hurt him, I think he’s expressed that. There were times he was a bit bewildered by it.

“There’s times where it’s almost double standards in some ways. Not all All Blacks are outstanding in every single Super Rugby game and Super Rugby campaign.

“I remember watching Richie and Dan [Carter] sometimes in their Super Rugby campaigns. They were giving it everything but not quite playing at the right standard.

“It seemed to be that whenever Sam had a few rough games, there were certain sectors that would climb into him.”

Ian Foster Sam Cane
Cane and Ian Foster came under intense scrutiny as the All Blacks had some uncharacteristic dips (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA/Getty Images)

Given Cane’s history, and the fact that he’s a 32-year-old openside flanker who played his first professional game when he was just 18 and has suffered a string of serious injuries, he was not stacking as a likely candidate to be named as new coach Scott Robertson’s All Blacks captain.

The prospect of Cane making it through the current World Cup cycle as a first-choice pick was always remote, and not just because of his age and injury profile.

New Zealand has a number of high-quality No 7s in development, most notably Dalton Papali’i who has already won 28 caps and shown himself to be a useful runner and fetcher.

There is also the 21-year-old Peter Lakai to consider, with the young Hurricanes openside having shone in the absence of Ardie Savea, who skipped Super Rugby this year to play in Japan.

And of course there is Savea himself, who although he has played at No 8 for much of the last four years, played most of his formative rugby at openside.

It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind.

It felt like Cane’s days would be numbered as an All Black and that if he stayed in New Zealand until the end of his current contract in 2025, that he would suffer the indignity of being dropped to make way for the next generation.

But it also felt that it would have been a touch disrespectful and perhaps pointed if Robertson snubbed Cane entirely – an obvious power play to send a message that he didn’t think much of his predecessor’s choice of skipper.

Even if Robertson had felt it would be politically savvy to show Cane the respect he deserved of picking him this year, it would have been questionable for how long he could justify the selection.

It felt like Cane’s days would be numbered as an All Black and that if he stayed in New Zealand until the end of his current contract in 2025, that he would suffer the indignity of being dropped to make way for the next generation.

And presumably Cane was smart enough to see where things were likely to head, which is why in January he proactively contacted Robertson and All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan to let them know he was going to take a three-year contract with Suntory at the end of 2024.

Sam Cane
Cane has chosen to put his family first and extend his contract with Suntory Goliath (Photo Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

“It was really emotional for him,” Robertson told media of the conversation. “He was home at that stage. He Facetimed myself and Jason Ryan and talked us through it. It was really personable. He wanted to make sure he looked us in the eyes and told us what he was thinking.

“By the end of the conversation, the offer he had got was the right thing for him and his family. We’re pleased with the outcome for him.”

There was no attempt to talk Cane out of his plan as it makes perfect sense. It is the ideal solution for him, Robertson and the All Blacks.

Cane will return from Japan in a few weeks and continue his rehabilitation from a back injury and try to find some meaningful games in New Zealand to get himself fit to be available for the All Blacks home series against Argentina in August.

Robertson isn’t making any promises about picking him, but with Cane on 95 test caps, the expectation, assuming he can get himself match fit and into some kind of form, is that he’ll make at least five appearances.

These won’t be token selections by any means as Cane will bring enormous experience, and leadership value, as well as brutal defensive capabilities and real presence around the ruck.

Cane can enjoy a last hurrah in the national team while playing a valued role in helping develop Papali’i and perhaps Lakai, and then retire with dignity and return to Japan.

“It’s like anything, it’s on form,” Robertson confirmed when he was asked if he’s likely to pick Cane.

“He’s coming back from an injury. He’s got to perform to be involved with the All Blacks. He knows that. He’s been involved with leadership meetings already. He’s still got those qualities. He knows what to say at the right time. When you play 95 tests, you’ve been around, you know what it takes. He’s available this year. If he performs, it’s up to me to pick him.”

Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career.

Cane can enjoy a last hurrah in the national team while playing a valued role in helping develop Papali’i and perhaps Lakai, and then retire with dignity and return to Japan where he can see out the last of his playing years on a lucrative contract that no one would say he doesn’t deserve.

Sam Cane
Cane said he would have to live with the regret of his World Cup final red card for life (Photo Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

For Robertson, this set-up is a way for him to make a clean start to his tenure and come into the season with a solution already planned and communicated about what he intends to do with the former captain.

There will be no tricky ‘what-to-do-about-Cane’ moment, no distracting and prolonged media speculation about a player who may not be universally loved by the public but is massively respected and by his peers.

And above all else, he’ll have a world class player available to him as he tries to produce the string of victories required to prove to everyone that he is the enigmatic, out-of-the-box sort of coach that can reposition the All Blacks as the game’s most dominant force.

Comments

13 Comments
m
monty 36 days ago

No doubt Razor will want to kick the 2024 campaign off with a decisive selection of the top match fit players to insure his selection as the appointed coach has maximum impact. We the supporters and critics will settle for nothing less because historically it is what we have become ingrained and accustomed to. With that in mind and the distinct fall from grace of his beloved crusaders we will expect him to stamp his mark in the same way he left his old post.

B
Barry 37 days ago

Average AB captain by recent standards. Speaks to the wider issue

B
Barry 37 days ago

Wholesome lad, but no longer test level. At all

S
Scott 38 days ago

I think there is zero chance Sam Cane will be selected for another Test. There is simply no point except sentimentality. Razor is not sentimental- ask Wyatt Crocket.

Razor is a ruthless selector

J
Jon 38 days ago

Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career.
No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however.
Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again).

With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

T
Tim 38 days ago

ABs captain for 23 seasons. Decent record. Surely nobody will surpass it. Legend. But alas a typo…

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