LONDON, September 23- The rapid elevation of 23-year-old Sam Cane to captain New Zealand against Namibia at London’s Olympic Stadium on Thursday is the latest chapter in the All Blacks blueprint for the future.
He’s not earmarked as the next first choice captain after the talismanic Richie McCaw finally retires but he will be the one after that in coach Steve Hansen’s vision which requires constant forward planning.
“It’s a great opportunity to future proof,” Hansen said as he made wholesale changes to his starting line up for their second Pool C match against minnows Namibia.
The position of All Blacks captain ranks as probably the second-most important role in rugby-obsessed New Zealand behind the prime minister.
The skipper is expected to uphold the team’s phenomenal record as one of the most successful sports teams in the world with a 76 percent winning rate from 532 Tests over more than 120 years.
The 12 changes to face Namibia, which meant starting an almost second XV against the southern Africans, is Hansen’s way of making sure all of his squad get World Cup game time and he has cover for any eventuality ahead.
Kieran Read is the captain in waiting behind McCaw and if the defending champions suffer another horror run of injuries — they lost three fly-halves in the 2011 World Cup — then Cane is the insurance policy.
“If you look at the immediate future Rico (McCaw) will come back and be the leader and then after that you’ve got people like Kieran Read likely to be the next full-time guy. After that, you’re saying who’s going to drop in.
“He’s seen probably two of the best leaders in world rugby pretty close up in Rich and Reado so he’s had a great apprenticeship.”
– ‘Right temperament’ –
Hansen, always keen to cover all possibilities, has blooded 37 All Blacks in the past four years of whom 14 have survived to make the World Cup.
Cane was one of the first he brought in as a 20-year-old in 2012 to be the openside understudy to McCaw.
Covering for the All Blacks figurehead meant most of his 25 Tests have been off the bench but off the park the All Blacks immediately recognised him as holding leadership credentials.
Cane was promoted to the team leadership group after only a year in the side, a rare honour for a player unable to command a regular starting berth.
“I just think he’s got the right temperament and playing skills,” said Hansen.
“In the heat of battle he’s a clear-headed young fellow and to me that’s mental fortitude to be able to stay on task when everything around you is imploding.
“You can’t lead if you can’t have the ability under pressure to lead so you are looking for that.”
Cane admitted to being surprised at being tapped to replace McCaw as both flanker and captain.
He knew Hansen intended big changes for the Namibia match and was only hoping to get some game time after playing 16 minutes off the bench against Argentina.
“I was hoping, with the short turnaround, it will be great to get a start and he (Hansen) said you’ll be starting and you’ll also be captain. It took me back a little bit,” Cane said.
“Over the last couple of years I’ve grown comfortable in the leadership role and enjoy that part of it and enjoy having a say in what goes on in the team and how to make it better.”
The appointment of the 67th All Blacks captain was applauded by the team who say there is immense respect for Cane who now captains the Chiefs in Super rugby after joining the squad as a 17-year-old.
Scrum-half TJ Perenara, who also played with Cane in New Zealand age-group sides, said it was no surprise: “I always saw potential in him to be captain. in all the teams I’ve been in with him hes always had a leadership role.”
Beauden Barrett, a member of the successful 2011 Junior World Championship side with Cane, described him as “a natural leader.”