When Sam Cane dropped to the turf in South Africa, the World Cup was the furthest thing from his mind. He speaks to Christopher Reive about his neck fracture and the road to recovery.
Walking around the Chiefs' Hamilton training facility, Sam Cane knows how lucky he really is.
Four months ago, he lay flat on his back on the turf of Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld Stadium. An attempted clean out at the breakdown saw his head collide with the hip of South African No.8 Francois Louw during the All Blacks 32-30 win over the Springboks and he fell to the ground immediately.
After a long delay, the All Blacks loose forward was able to leave the field on his feet – supported by medical staff – but later examinations showed a fracture in his neck.
The following day, Cane underwent surgery in Johannesburg while his fiancée, Harriet Allen, and mum, Kathy, flew to be by his side.
When Cane went down, many spectators of the game were quick to question his availability for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. For the young flanker, that was the furthest thing from his mind.
"As bad as the injury was, I also, in a funny way, felt pretty lucky because it could have been a lot worse," Cane tells the Herald. "We're only a couple of millimetres away from never playing again so in a funny way I was pretty grateful that I was going to be OK and, one: I was going to be able to live a healthy, normal life and two: to get back playing rugby is awesome."
Returning to New Zealand after his surgery, a neck brace became an important part of his daily attire. With Allen working, Cane found himself spending a lot of time at home alone, unable to do anything physical. For the first six weeks of his recovery, Cane says he was "pretty immobile" and in a lot of pain, but once he got past that point being stuck at home wasn't all that bad.
It allowed him to turn his attention to planning for the house he and Allen are building, as well as some wedding planning.
"I organised the band," he says proudly. "I've got that locked in place."
In January, Cane was able to shed his brace after being bound to it for three months and was allowed to get back into some light exercise.
"Coming back to training now after having pretty much four months away from rugby completely, I'm genuinely excited to be back."
"There's been a lot of firsts. You know, like the first time doing this since the injury and coming to grips with what you can and can't do. After three months of being told not to pick up anything more than two kilos or do anything strenuous whatsoever, to be back running, jeez you're a bit tentative and it's all just getting your confidence back really."
The 27-year-old rejoined the Chiefs camp this week help the side with their final preparations for the upcoming Super Rugby season, with the Chiefs campaign getting underway in Hamilton in two weeks' time against the Highlanders.
Despite being all but ruled out for the season, Cane retained his co-captaincy for 2019, sharing the job with fellow All Black Brodie Retallick.
For Cane, there's no specific date he's targeting for his return to the paddock. In April, he is due to see a specialist who will examine just how well his fracture is healing before he'll have a realistic idea of when he can get back to playing football.
"They need to see, obviously, clear healing of the fracture but also clear healing of the two vertebrae, he needs to see clear, white healthy bone and if I get the OK there I'll be able to work my way back into contact and rugby training.
"It all just depends on how that scan and that meeting goes at the six month mark, but there's no reason why it shouldn't go well."
While his impact on the field will be limited at best, there would be plenty of off-field and behind the scenes facets of the game that would see Cane's leadership come into play.
For the past few seasons, the Chiefs have had a relatively young squad. But with the majority of the team now having a few seasons of Super rugby under their belts, Cane says the expectation is they will be able to step up to a higher level than they played at last year.
"They know what it's all about, they'll feel a lot more comfortable and they're all set to have big seasons."
While their co-captain remains sidelined, Lachlan Boshier and Mitchell Karpik are likely to see the bulk of minutes in the No.7 jersey. Boshier was particularly impressive in 2018 when given opportunities in the starting squad.
Cane was hopeful he would be able to "get a sneaky couple of games" at the end of the season, but was realistic that it might not happen. Even once he's given the all clear by medical staff, he'll have to work his way back to full fitness, and get used to going into contact again which many in his position might find difficult.
"I suppose I'll only know that when I'm making my first tackle or clean out my first ruck," Cane says of being convinced he was back to full strength.
"Every other time I've had an injury I've been able to step out there, put it to one side and just play. Obviously this is a bit of a different context, but I suppose I'll only know how I'll react when the time comes.
"It'll be a mental challenge; it won't be a physical limitation."