There’s just one change to the All Blacks starting team for tomorrow, with Victor Vito’s knee injury meaning a start for Adam Thomson. The Highlanders blindside scored a try off the bench last weekend and was unlucky not to be starting anyway, so it won’t weaken the hosts. Thomson’s promotion means that Sam Cane is included in an All Blacks match day squad for the first time. It’s likely that we’ll see the young Chiefs man off the bench tomorrow. The openside is still only 20, but there is some hope that Cane could be the man to eventually replace the legendary Richie McCaw.
Cane has long been marked out as a player of exceptional potential. In 2009, while he was still in school at Reporoa College, he was signed by ITM Cup side Bay of Plenty. Part of the New Zealand Schools side the same year, Cane became the first schoolboy player in New Zealand rugby history to be nominated for the NZRU Age Grade Player of the Year. Up against him were Aaron Cruden, Zac Guildford and Winston Stanley. All three were part of the 2009 Junior World Championship winning New Zealand U20s team and 3 years his senior. Cruden was the eventual winner, but to be nominated at just 17 was incredible.
2010 saw Cane make his ITM Cup debut for home union Bay of Plenty. After a few cameos off the bench, he started his first game against Manawatu in September, making him the youngest Bay of Plenty starter in over a decade. NZRU regulations at the time actually prevented Cane from featuring more throughout the season, as the rules limited him to just 6 starts because of his age (18). Still, the openside’s reputations was rapidly rising and the Chiefs brought him onto their books in the same year. At just 18 years of age, Cane made his Super Rugby debut off the bench in the Chiefs’ 72-65 win over the Lions.
In 2011, Cane made 3 brief appearances off the bench before earning his first Super Rugby start in May 2011 at the age of 19. Prophetically, it came opposite Richie McCaw and the Crusaders. The following month, Cane was on his way to the Junior World Championship with the U20s, where he would announce himself to a worldwide audience. The Baby Blacks won all five of their matches on an aggregate scoreline of 274-52. It was a special team, so for Cane to stand out was remarkable. He even scored a hat-trick in the 92-0 thrashing of Wales.
His performances at the JWC in Italy earned the openside a nomination for the IRB Young Player of the Year. He returned home to play an important role in Bay of Plenty’s 2011 ITM Cup campaign. The ‘Steamers’ (odd nickname) were unlucky to miss out on a place in the Premiership Final, as they came up two points short. Cane once again impressed, scoring 4 tries and contributing all over the pitch with his never-ending work-rate.
The rise has continued in 2012. The Chiefs sit top of the Super Rugby table and Cane has played his part. He’s made 13 appearances, 5 of them starts and scored 1 try. He’s had to be patient though, with 4-times capped All Black Tanerau Latimer often preferred at 7. Still, it’s not too bad a situation for a 20-year-old to be in, and the 104kg back-row has done well whenever he’s been given the chance. His standing within the game was highlighted when Steve Hansen selected the openside in his 35-man wider training group for this test series.
The expectation was that Cane was being brought into the camp to gain valuable experience, before being capped somewhere down the road. However, the injury to Vito has given him an opportunity to become an All Black earlier than expected. You’d have to presume that the young Chief has impressed in training to earn this chance. There are still aspects of inexperience in Cane’s game, but he has admitted that he’s learning “lots of subtle little tips” from the master McCaw.
All Blacks’ coach Hansen reckons that Cane “could be something special”. He has all the attributes to be a world-class openside. Cane does plenty of ‘fetching’ work on the deck and runs intelligent support lines like McCaw. Hansen says the 20-year-old is “big, robust, great over the ball and plays an intelligent game.” While I’m not suggesting that Richie McCaw is a poor ball-carrier, it’s one area where Cane looks to have the potential to be better than the All Blacks’ captain. At underage level at least, Cane has been explosive with ball in hand.
It’s never going to be an easy task to replace McCaw whenever that time comes, but Cane looks to have all the tools to do it.