What began in earnest with a 79th-minute substitution will soon continue in the new Super Rugby season.

After replacing him in the dying moments of last year's Rugby World Cup final, Sam Cane is now facing the reality of the most unenviable role in New Zealand sport: filling the boots of one Richard Hugh McCaw ONZ.

That the availability of the All Blacks' No 7 jersey comes as a surprise to no one hardly helps make life any easier for Cane, nor does the fact the succession plan has long been in place.

His lengthy apprenticeship in black may provide some assistance - having appeared as a substitute in 18 of his 31 tests since - but even that preparation can be only so beneficial when taking over from the master.


Prior warning and previous experience all adds up to very little. How Cane performs on the pitch in the present will be of much more relevance when replacing the irreplaceable.

If anyone can accomplish that nigh-on impossible task, though, Cane may be the man.
Tipped an All Black while still running out for the Bay of Plenty under-14 rep team - right around the time McCaw started seeing (c) regularly appear beside his name - the openside has in the decade since developed both the ability and temperament required to leave fans asking 'Richie who?'

Well, maybe not quite. That particular name will of course be looming like a spectre above every step Cane takes this season. But, he insists with typical humility, he'll be far from the only flanker with his eyes on the ultimate prize.

The privilege of taking McCaw's jersey, Cane argues, must be earned rather than received as an automatic inheritance.

"We all know he's retired," Cane says, "but there will be plenty of other sevens around the country getting pretty excited about a potential opening later in the year. For me, I just want to hit the ground running this year. I want to come into camp in good nick and work hard so that I give myself a shot later in the year.

"The Chiefs campaign is the only one guaranteed at this stage, isn't it? So the stepping stone to getting there is playing well here."

That will first entail the other tough ask Cane is braving this season. As if assuming McCaw's mantle wasn't enough, the flanker must also fill the leadership void left at the Chiefs by Liam Messam.

It all makes for a rather weighty to-do list for a man who turned 24 on Wednesday, but Cane believes the first demand will help ease the second. After being appointed alongside Aaron Cruden as co-captain at the Chiefs, Cane is counting on the extra responsibility to lift his game above even the outstanding heights reached in the previous campaign.

"I'd like to think that hopefully the leadership role brings the best out of me and makes me play even better," Cane says. "That's yet to be confirmed but I'd like to hope that's the way things will go."

If that hope becomes a reality, wearing McCaw's jersey may start to seem more manageable. Chiefs coach Dave Rennie, for one, having guided Cane's ascent to the All Blacks, believes nothing is beyond a player of his character.

"Sam's a quality man," Rennie says. "It's hard not to be impressed with him and I think anyone who would have had anything to do with Sam would say the same thing. He's great with the guys. He's a strategic thinker and he's keen to lead and make a difference."