Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Cane to take another step in future leadership role

Sam Cane may captain the All Blacks against Italy. Photo / photosport.nz
Sam Cane may captain the All Blacks against Italy. Photo / photosport.nz

If he comes off Soldier Field in one piece today and ready to back up next weekend, there's a good chance Sam Cane will be asked to captain the All Blacks in Rome.

The selectors haven't given much away on this trip - they haven't signalled how strong their desire is to have a proper look at emerging talent.

But a process of logical deduction says Italy are the lowest-ranked team the All Blacks will face in 2016. New Zealand have taken a handful of promising youngsters in their squad and, with two bruising games against Ireland and France to round out the tour, they need to be wary about the workload of their senior players.

If there is going to be a nod to the future, this week is surely when it will come, and one of the big building blocks that has to be put in place for the future is leadership.

One of the keys to the All Blacks' success this year is the way in which they have been able to continue to make good decisions and respond well to pressure, despite losing 800-plus test caps after last year's World Cup.

They have been able to do that because, between 2012 and 2015, they expanded their leadership group to include a host of younger players, such as Cane, Brodie Retallick and Aaron Cruden.

Cane was elevated to that group in 2013, when just 21 - a clear signal he was viewed as a character with the maturity and temperament to lead the team.

Confirmation of his standing came at last year's World Cup when he was captain against Namibia. And while Ben Smith is the vice-captain, it is Cane who is seen as Kieran Read's most likely long-term successor.

Level-headed, calm and willing to make his voice heard, Cane had considerable captaincy experience through the age-grade ranks and was co-captain of the Chiefs this year.

Ideally, then, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen would like to give Cane responsibility when he can in the same way Read was occasionally asked to captain the side between 2012 and 2015.

And it was the last time they played Italy - second game into their European tour of 2012 - that Read was given his first taste of the captaincy. It was the beginning of the succession process, the official acknowledgement that Read wasn't just the vice-captain but was also the future captain-elect.

Potentially the same process could begin this week with Cane if the selectors decide to rest Read, which would allow them to assess the merits of Liam Squire or Steven Luatua at No 8.

The test at Olympic Stadium could also be the right time to give Rieko Ioane his debut. The 19-year-old has already developed the physicality to cope with test football and, having played at the Olympics, there is confidence he's also mentally equipped to handle the intensity of the occasion.

Damian McKenzie would be another strong candidate to make an appearance to add to the solitary cap he won against Argentina this year.

Elliot Dixon, who had a hit-out for the Maori against the United States in Chicago yesterday, is likely to see game time to show he has the ability to impose himself at this level.

Cruden and Lima Sopoaga will be vying to start at No 10 and it is probable Codie Taylor and Liam Coltman will share the hooking role.

- NZ Herald

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