Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Young flanker learns from the best

There was no chance Sam Cane would be missed in his last All Black test. Blood surged from a gash in his head after it took the full chomp of tighthead prop Owen Franks' teeth when he and his All Black teammate clattered into the same melee.

When Cane had the wound stitched and bandaged, there was a rosy leaching into the plaster and tape around his headgear. Late in the Eden Park test he had to go off for further repairs but five minutes later he jogged back into the fray.

It was Cane's 10th test and another chance for him to start in the No 7 jersey.

Since getting the Steve Hansen tick of approval last season, a range of circumstances has delivered Cane a start in six internationals.

It is a ratio many of his predecessors just dreamed about as Richie McCaw began to slap an iron grip on the job after his 2001 debut in Ireland.

But with McCaw on his sabbatical in June and then in the casualty ward in this Rugby Championship with an injured knee, Cane has been asked to do more of the frontline work.

His elevation is one of those fascinating rugby situations.

Tanerau Latimer and Cane have shared the openside duties at the Chiefs because the coaches believe the team gets the best out of both players using that scheme. When it comes to the big matches, Latimer has been preferred in the starting role.

Come test squad announcements, Cane gets the approval as McCaw's lieutenant while Latimer is left to muse on his misfortune, even more so this year when another openside was needed and Matt Todd was picked.

It is another of those sporting puzzles which provide grizzled frowns and discussions from those who follow the sport.

Cane at 20 years and 155 days was almost six months younger than McCaw when he made his All Black debut last season. Both made their debut against Ireland, McCaw starting 12 years ago with a man of the match award in Dublin.

Last year, Cane tagged along close to his skipper, watching how he dealt with all the aspects of his job. He studied his preparation at the gym, on the training field and in the computer room.

He watched the lines his captain ran on the field, when he decided to attack the breakdown and how he made his decisions. It was rugby gold for the young flanker who was brought up in the farming district of Reporoa.

Those rural roots helped shape Cane into a resourceful, self-sufficient young man and gave him much of the strong mental platform from which to launch his rugby ambition.

When Hansen and his assistants were scouring for another flanker they looked for someone who would flourish in test rugby, a flanker who would not be intimidated by the expectation. Their inquiries and observations intersected with Cane.

He was young but had the full repertoire to fit into the long line of superb players who had worn the No 7 jersey. Before the All Blacks' last test at Eden Park against the Boks, Cane dismissed the pressure as an inherent test rugby characteristic.

He had learned to deal with that at the Chiefs even if he came on as a late sub, when he had to trust his own play and the team patterns. Hansen liked what he saw and was certain Cane had all the attributes to rise in test rugby.

"He's ready," Hansen said before Cane's bloodied evening. "He's just got to be his own man and do his own things that he does really well." The coach fingered a performance from his tight five as the basis for loose forward production from Cane and Co. That unity occurred, much to Hansen and Cane's satisfaction.

Quality teams and players have repeat performance graphs - something Cane and the All Blacks have in their sights on Sunday against the Pumas in La Plata.

- NZ Herald

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