Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: One rare chance to step in for a master

Richie McCaw's a tough act to follow, but Sam Cane is ready to seize the opportunity against Italy.

It was 12 years ago that Richie McCaw sat where Sam Cane is now, young, unblemished and desperately hoping to make the right impression on his first All Black tour.

McCaw won't play tomorrow, instead he will rest a body that has been ravaged by more physical punishment than any sane man should take - his once cherub-like face now a maze of scars, his limbs riddled with gristle and his joints aware, even if his brain isn't, that osteoarthritis is locked in for the post-career haul.

A career as an All Black openside will do that to a man - stress every part of the system, break bits and leave others sporadically dysfunctional.

Yet on the eve of his second test start, Cane wants that life more than anything.

"That's the future that I'd love to buy into," he says. "If I could have a career like he (McCaw) has had, I'd be pretty pleased. The first step in that is taking my chance and playing well on Saturday."

It takes a peculiar, or perhaps that should be specific, kind of person to be drawn to the No7 shirt. There must be something in the air or in the water in New Zealand - more than any other rugby nation, it produces opensides with natural rugby instincts that are supported with incredible athletic prowess.

Cane, like McCaw and like Josh Kronfeld and Michael Jones before them, shapes as the perfect package of brain and brawn and the essential touch of madness that is required to cope with the maelstrom.

"I think it comes down to a guy's nature and how they are as people," says Cane of why he's in the brotherhood of the openside.

"You could also argue that props are a little bit different as well - they just love to push and smash.

"Sevens ... we just love to be involved. We love to get around the field and be involved with as many things as we can and go as hard as we can for as long as we can."

Cane may have a touch of the crazies, but there is nothing crazy, frenzied or wild about the way he plays. He has that same measured demeanour as McCaw, that same intense focus only just submerged under an easygoing, smiling facade.

It was the accuracy of Cane that earned him his All Black call-up. He didn't win much game time with the Chiefs, but he made the minutes he did play count.

The selectors liked his ability to follow the ball, read the flow and time his strikes. His ball carrying and tackling were also impressive.

That patience will be important at the Stadio Olimpico. On top of everything else, Cane is a realist and he knows, a six-month sabbatical aside, that McCaw is only rarely going to vacate his treasured No7 shirt.

Cane has spent much of his rookie All Black year watching from the stands, sucking in everything, just itching for the chance to play. Now it has come he has to curb the urgency and exhale the angst; keep the fire in his blood but insert ice into the brain.

"The best thing that you can do for the team and to fit in is to not try to show off," he says. "The best thing is to focus on your basic role and try to do that well ... which for a No7 is tackle, cleanout, ball carry and be a bit of a menace at breakdown.

"If you can do those simple things, opportunities will arise for you to be a support player and to get an offload or whatever it may be.

"It's simple really, if everyone is doing their role then we are going to click, so I set a few simple goals before each game and focus on them.. If you nail those, and the other guys are nailing theirs, then it's going to be a good day at the office."

NZ v Italy
Olympic Stadium, Rome, tomorrow 3am NZ Time

- NZ Herald

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