The All Blacks' big selection dilemma
OPINION: With Sam Cane given the captaincy role, Alex McLeod looks at the potential make-up of the All Blacks’ back row.
There’s no doubting that the All Blacks captaincy role bestowed on Sam Cane is an appointment richly deserved for the 63-Test flank.
Few players possess as much defensive accuracy, consistency and quality as Cane, and the fact that he first captained his nation five years ago at the age of 23 is indicative of how highly his leadership capabilities are regarded.
The perseverance he showed to return from a fractured neck suffered in 2018 further illustrates the mental and physical toughness the 28-year-old wields, making him the logical choice to succeed Kieran Read.
Despite having started last year’s World Cup semifinal defeat to England off the bench, a player of Cane’s calibre will demand a starting role in the All Blacks set-up, which is more than what can be said of his only other challenger for the leadership role.
While substantially more experienced than his international teammate, 31-year-old Sam Whitelock has already shown signs of wear and tear as he enters the twilight of his professional career.
The 117-test veteran remains a crucial cog in the make-up of the All Blacks, and that was reflected in his most recent contract extension with New Zealand Rugby which will keep him locked in until the 2023 World Cup in France.
Whether Whitelock actually makes the tournament given his exhaustive schedules with the All Blacks and Crusaders is another question entirely, but those doubts surrounding his longevity only supports the reasoning behind Cane’s induction as skipper.
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The implications of Ian Foster’s decision to promote the Chiefs stalwart extends beyond the squad’s leadership dynamics, though.
With Cane’s new captaincy role effectively cementing his place in New Zealand’s starting XV, questions will be asked of what beckons for 2019 World Rugby player of the Year nominee, Ardie Savea.
Predominantly an openside flank, Savea has tussled with Cane regularly throughout the past four years for a starting role following the retirement of Richie McCaw after the 2015 World Cup.
Up until the end of 2018, Cane was regarded the premier No.7 in the country for the very attributes mentioned above, but his neck fracture against the Springboks in October of that year opened an avenue for Savea to improve his standing in the pecking order.
An impressive end-of-year tour with the All Blacks was followed up by a barnstorming Super Rugby campaign last season, creating a selection dilemma for the national selectors of how they were going to fit all of Cane, Savea and captain Read into starting roles.
Cane and Read were ultimately retained in their favoured positions of openside flanker and No.8, while Savea was thrust into the blindside flank spot to alleviate the self-imposed absence of departed Highlanders bruiser Liam Squire.
As one of the most robust loose forwards in the world, Savea’s transition to the short side of the scrum was seamless.
His explosive ball-carrying, eye-catching pace and defensive work rate stood out to the point that the Hurricanes star blossomed into one of the best players on the planet.
More pertinently from a Kiwi perspective, though, Savea’s positional switch exemplified his versatility across the back row.
Even while donning the No.6 jersey, the 26-year-old was often used off the back of the scrum to best utilise his prowess with ball in hand.
It’s that fluidity throughout the loose forward positions that Foster will look to when the time comes to picking his first All Blacks team of the year, whenever that may be.
“We’ve shown we can both get them on the park at the same time which we’re excited about,” Foster said at the time of Cane’s captaincy announcement earlier this week.
“Certainly, when you look at form from last year, both players were good enough to be selected.
“We’ve looked at the versatility of Ardie and Sam so we’ve got some really good options there. Some of that might be influenced by who puts their hand up as the third loosie.
“There’s plenty of room for people to impress in that six-eight role and we’ll look at the combinations from then on.
“Ardie is a massive part of our plans, as is Sam Cane. I’m pretty sure we’ll find a way to get them both playing, and playing really well.”
With Cane’s and Savea’s places in the national side virtually untouchable right now, the focus will shift to deciding who will accompany the pair in New Zealand’s loose forward trio.
The exit of Read to Toyota Verblitz in Japan’s Top League means Savea could well make a permanent move to No.8, a position that may prove to be where he is most effective.
Alternatively, he may be retained at blindside flank if a promising option emerges at No.8.
Blues youngster Hoskins Sotutu certainly fits that bill after a series of spellbinding performances for the Auckland franchise this year before Super Rugby was ground to a halt in March.
So too does Crusaders rookie Cullen Grace, who would presumably be used as a blindside flank at international level after flourishing there in Super Rugby.
Not only would his height be a valued asset at the line-out, but his inclusion in an All Blacks side would allow Savea to maintain a place at the base of the scrum.
However, both Grace and Sotutu have stern competition in the form of two-test Chiefs youngster Luke Jacobson and three-test Blues tearaway Dalton Papalii.
Jacobson, in particular, has been earmarked for future success, although a run of injuries has hampered the 23-year-old’s progress in recent times.
Outside of that quartet, nine-test blindside Shannon Frizell has brought a physical edge since entering the professional scene two years ago, but the former Tongan age-grade football representative has struggled for form in a depleted Highlanders outfit this year.
The same can be said of experienced Hurricanes utility forward Vaea Fifita and Blues veteran Akira Ioane, both of whom are yet to find the vein of form that first made them All Blacks three years ago.
Elsewhere, long-serving Chiefs flank Lachlan Boshier caught the eyes of many early on in this year’s Super Rugby, while Hurricanes sophomore Du’Plessis Kirifi remains a long-term option in the years to come.
Regardless of who fits in alongside Cane and Savea in the national side, it’s undeniable that the depth of quality loose forwards throughout New Zealand leaves the All Blacks in good stead when they next run out onto the park.
No matter where Savea is deployed to complement the services of his skipper in the coming months, Foster can rest assured that his back row stocks will remain unaffected – if not enhanced – by the selection of Cane as his side’s captain.
By Alex McLeod, @RugbyPass