The last time Sam Cane returned to rugby from a serious injury – a broken neck no less – it was in 2019 and former Chiefs assistant coach Tabai Matson was a walking and talking tackle bag.
Cane, building physical strength as well as timing and confidence, would knock Matson, a former All Blacks midfielder, over and then they would both get up and they would do it again and again – in fact, about 200 times.
A few months later and Cane was at the World Cup in Japan.
Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, Cane's current rehabilitation from a shoulder reconstruction and pectoral reattachment for injuries suffered in March has been limited to gym work, running, and practising his passing with wife Harriet on the front lawn of their property in north Hamilton.
If the level 3 restrictions weren't in place he would have been based in Mt Maunganui and training with Bay of Plenty this week. As it is, he doesn't know when he'll take the field again.
Cane, the All Blacks captain, is like many of us in New Zealand attempting to navigate our way through the pandemic at the moment. He's had to find new ways of doing things while trying to remain positive when the alternative is to be upset at the opportunities being snatched from his grasp.
And, perhaps not surprisingly for a man who has had to respond to two serious injuries in the space of three years, the first of which was life-threatening, Cane is looking on the bright side.
In a revealing interview with the Herald, he spoke about his comeback, what he learned last year in his first campaign as All Blacks captain, and why he felt the need to go to Richie McCaw for advice as the "continuous load" of his new responsibilities left him on the brink of exhaustion when he returned from Australia after six tests in seven weeks.
He was also glowing in his description of Akira Ioane's recent performances, saying the Blues loose forward could turn into the "enforcer" the All Blacks have been seeking at blindside flanker.
While the 29-year-old Cane would be the first to say there are people in far worse predicaments, it can't have been easy to say goodbye to the All Blacks as they embarked for Perth and the first of five tests in Australia ahead of an extremely challenging tour which includes tests against Argentina and South Africa (twice each) and then the USA, Ireland, Wales, France and Italy, while he stayed in lockdown.
"To be fair the whole year has been a bit weird and frustrating for me," he said. "After last year's six tests in seven weeks, my first campaign as skipper, some steep learning curves in a pretty unique campaign… I was really looking forward to what this year had to offer. Plus, the group had been together a year longer – staff, players, everyone. But wasn't to be with the shoulder. It just hasn't gone to plan."
Some good news: Cane's body is sticking to the plan – it's responding well and he hopes to play for the Steamers in the first or second weekend of October before linking with the All Blacks who are scheduled to play the USA in Washington DC on October 23 before travelling to Europe.
The not-so-good news is that New Zealand's latest Covid outbreak means it's anyone's guess as to when the NPC, halted after two rounds, will re-start.
So, Cane is a bit stuck. He's obviously very keen to link with Bay of Plenty coach Daryl Gibson, and the pair have spoken a couple of times on the phone recently, but he is also comforted by the knowledge that his body is recovering well and, if that continues to be the case, he will get on the plane for the USA regardless of whether he plays any rugby for the Steamers.
"I'd take confidence from the level at which the ABs train at to be able to play," Cane confirmed.
Cane has overseen four of the five All Blacks tests this year – he didn't travel to Dunedin for the Fiji test – in order to maintain and build relationships and learn the rugby content set down by head coach Ian Foster.
But he's yet to put the black No 7 jersey on, with Dalton Papalii playing well in his absence alongside Ioane and Ardie Savea, the latter anointed the new captain in the absence of Cane and Sam Whitelock, starting with the test against Australia in Perth on Sunday.
And, until he gets back into one of New Zealand's biggest leadership roles, a few internal questions will likely remain. Cane, always seen as leadership material by former coach Steve Hansen, got his first taste of the All Blacks captaincy at the 2015 World Cup – before he had led the Chiefs – but he admitted the weight of the job was heavier than he had anticipated once he took over from Kieran Read.
"Probably the bit that surprised me was the lack of mental downtime or having the ability to genuinely switch off in the evenings or whenever," he said. "You're always thinking about how we can do things better and what the environment is like, how things are tracking.
"There are a lot of one-on-one catch-ups with the rest of your leaders; conversations that you plan at the start of the week you have to get done. I wouldn't call it overwhelming but it was a continuous load. I probably didn't recognise that until I got into MIQ – the first couple of days I was knackered. There weren't any points where I didn't enjoy it, by any means. I did enjoy it. I suppose the frustrating thing was the [team's] lack of consistency. In the games where we played well, we blew teams away. But we let ourselves slip in a couple.
"It forced me to look at what I was doing. I tapped into Richie McCaw a couple of times. I have a good relationship there which I can lean on and bounce ideas off him. To be fair, that may not have happened had it been a smooth ride.
"I would have been confident going to Kieran or Richie, but … Richie has experienced it all - everything from being a young skipper, and he can relate to all the experiences without telling you what to do, just offer suggestions. I found it really helpful. The frustrating thing is that a lot of the lessons I learned last year I haven't been able to put into practice first hand this year."
This year, after a slow start against Tonga and Fiji, the All Blacks turned it on for three-quarters of the first Bledisloe Cup test against Australia at Eden Park before going to a new level in the second half of the most recent test, which they won 57-22 to lock the big trophy away for another year.
"It's good to see the boys playing well but at the same time I'd love to be out there contributing on a big tour like this," Cane said. "I try to look at it through a pretty positive lens. There are five of our leadership group at home including Colesy [Dane Coles] and myself who are injured and then Sammy Whitelock and Richie [Mo'unga] and Nuggy [Aaron Smith].
"At the same time, I'm pretty excited to see other guys step up and know that the main goal is France '23, and that this is only going to strengthen our squad. You can sometimes get a little bit caught up if you look at it from a selfish point of view of wanting to be out there. In terms of the All Blacks squad and the exposure and experience we're getting, I think it will make our squad stronger."
Cane confirmed he was consulted by Foster about the appointment of Savea as captain and spoke about how impressed he was by the overall performances of the loose forwards, including Ioane and Papalii, in the Bledisloe Cup tests.
"They're a pretty exciting group to watch, and throw Luke [Jacobson] in there. I know he didn't get too many minutes off the bench in those last two tests and I don't know what the average age would be [25 if including Jacobson], but it's a young trio.
"I'm really pleased for Akira. He's been through a wee bit. He stuck at it. We got a glimpse of what he was capable of at test match level last year and I think that last test against Aussie he really put his hand up and showed he's made for test rugby.
"He's a big physical specimen and he's not scared of anyone. He won't take a backward step. As the years go on he could equally mould into almost an enforcer role that we've come to expect from our No 6s."
Cane also described Whitelock as "his right-hand man" last year and a very special player, and he was even more effusive about the merits of Foster, who has re-signed as head coach with the All Blacks through to the next World Cup in France.
"I think we keep forgetting how unusual it was to have so many tests like that in a row," Cane said of a 2020 in which the All Blacks won three tests, lost two and drew one.
"The only time we have that really is at a World Cup. To have a new coaching group come together and to be away like that – we learned lots as a group but throughout that whole time Fozzie was outstanding. He's, without doubt, the head coach, the leader of our team, and he's leading us extraordinarily well. He's got a real compassionate side and empathy.
"He understands people, and his technical and tactical knowledge is world-class. I'm really confident in Fozzie and where he can take this team in the next couple of years."
What did he learn last year? That it's very difficult to maintain a certain amount of intensity over such a long period. The same will apply this year and Cane said that means All Blacks will modify the way they do things.
"We won't be able to have the same intensity every single week. During the Rugby Championship, we're normally on for two weeks and at home for a week. From experience, those first couple of days at home during that week off are a real decompression. You're mentally a bit buggered from being so on and so focused. Mentally, that won't be sustainable week after week after week.
"We're pretty structured in our weekly routines normally but we'll look to mix those up. It will be important to incorporate as much fun as possible and to create time in the schedule for when guys can get in touch with their families and perhaps not putting meetings or trainings on when the kids are going to bed back home.
"Fozzie has called it 'a tour like no other' and if you frame that in a positive way that can be exciting as well. The challenge is to do things a little differently and from that maybe find some bits of gold that we can carry forward with us."
How will Cane respond when he does come back into the fold at last? As usual, he's honest and to the point.
"The last thing I want to do is come back and be sort of overpowering. It will be about encouraging those guys to keep leading the way they've been doing; to keep growing.
"And hopefully, I'll be coming in after a pretty successful Rugby Championship and the team's humming. It will be nice to give them a bit of a boost for the last leg."