For four years, Sam Cane has played in the shadow of Richie McCaw.
Now with the veteran’s career finally over, Cane is the incumbent No7 but with the formidable figure of Ardie Savea breathing down his neck.
Such is the way, it seems, with New Zealand rugby. Any team which can afford to leave out the likes of Crusaders loose forward pair Matt Todd and Jordan Taufua, or veteran wing Cory Jane, has to be in good shape. It’s a testament to the succession plans of coach Steve Hansen and his assistants, but also the way the players are empowered in terms of the team’s preparation and game plan.
Cane, seen by many as an All Black captain in waiting, said the absence of McCaw, and the similarly departed Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Dan Carter, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock probably won’t become truly apparent until next week when the All Blacks are in test-week mode ahead, but, regardless, they are likely to be in good shape because not only their depth of talent but the way they are continually trying to evolve.
And that has as much to do with the junior players as the senior men. Cane, only 24 but a member of the leadership group for several years now, said every player’s voice was listened to, a sentiment echoed by first-five Aaron Cruden.
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“It’s not just Richie, there are guys who had been here for 10-plus years who aren’t here this time,” Cane said. “Once we build into the week and start preparing for a test week we might notice that a little more but it’s a great opportunity for other leaders and other players to step up and fill those shoes in their own way.”
Cruden, also a member of the leadership group, said: “The coaches do a good job at stressing it’s not personal because, ultimately, everyone does have an opinion and it’s important at the right moments that they voice those opinions.
“We don’t just want everyone to agree with what’s said, we want guys to challenge, to speak their minds, because that’s where you’re going to get change… to evolve your game. And something as an All Black group we’ve done really well in recent years is to continue to evolve, not to be happy and content with where we are as a team.”
One of the innovations employed by Hansen at the last World Cup was his willingness to go into big matches with two loose forwards and no specialist lock on the reserves bench. If he stays with that plan for the three-test series against Wales starting at Eden Park on June 11, that could open up opportunities for Elliot Dixon and Ardie Savea to play back-up, and Cane reinforced the need to stay ahead of the pack – in all senses.
“You think of the trends of the game four years ago and how vastly different they are now. To stay ahead you’ve got to keep evolving. There will be small changes, probably quite subtle, but our coaches spend a lot of time looking at trends… and communicate back and come up with a new plan.”