All Blacks legend Buck Shelford has backed the continued captaincy of Ardie Savea and warned Sam Cane could be "one injury away from retirement".
Speaking to D'Arcy Waldegrave on Newstalk ZB on Tuesday, Shelford laid out his assessment of the current All Blacks captaincy options in the absence of Cane and after Saturday night's loss to the Springboks.
Despite the defeat and questions over Savea's decision-making during the game's tense final stanza, Shelford backed the powerful loose forward's potential as captain and blamed simple mistakes at crucial moments by the forward pack for the loss.
"I think he's done a pretty good fist of it ... he didn't win on Saturday but I think he's doing a good job.
"But you've got to be in the position of captaincy for a while as well, and I think that Ardie probably needs a little more time in the seat to be able to really get the best out of him as a captain."
All Blacks coach Ian Foster has indicated that Savea will indeed get that extra time as leader, even when Cane eventually returns to the field during the team's upcoming extended tour. However, Shelford warned that, while Cane's pedigree as captain is unquestioned, his health is anything but.
"He is always probably one injury away from retirement from rugby, especially if it's to the head.
"He's had a lot of concussions in his career and if he gets another one, that could be the end of his career quite easily."
Cane will make his long-awaited rugby comeback, following pectoral surgery that has kept him out since March, with a surprise appearance in the Heartland Championship with King Country this weekend, before joining the All Blacks on their Northern tour.
Cane's absence has left the All Blacks to experiment with several captains in 2021, including Savea, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Aaron Smith.
Shelford believes only one of those should be in the role long-term.
"We've tried other guys. Whitelock, he might not be there for the World Cup... I don't think Brodie comes into the picture at all, even though he had that one test match.
"I wouldn't want to see Aaron [Smith] take on the captaincy in a bigger role because, his job as halfback, he's just so good at what he does, you wouldn't want to burden him with having that extra responsibility.
"He is the number one halfback in the world today. His passing is so accurate, his option taking - all those sorts of things - he gees up the boys really well and I wouldn't want him to get it solely because it could damage his game a little bit if he has to worry about captaining and making other decisions."
The All Blacks begin their five-match northern tour with a money-spinning test against the USA on October 24. They then progress to play Wales, Italy, Ireland and France.
Foster said this week his side is aware of the currently complex nature of its leadership but that it believes its methods will pay off.
"Clearly we've got some really good leaders in this team. Ardie has done a great job; Sam Whitelock was outstanding in the early part of the year. Sam Cane we're likely to just let him come back into the environment for those first two or three weeks. He's got to find his feet and get his confidence. We'll juggle that as we go along but we've got a clear plan."