New Zealand spring surprise by naming young flanker Sam Cane captain for a night

Coach Steve Hansen predicts that this is just the start for the 23-year-old, who becomes fifth-youngest All Blacks skipper

BIG BOOTS TO FILL: Steve Hansen is looking to the future in selectingSam Cane, 23, as captain 

LONDON, 22 Sept - Sam Cane’s New Zealand teammates have watched his rise over the years and always enjoyed the joke that in the shape of the mature young Chiefs flanker, there walked the FABC - Future All Blacks Captain. It turns out they were not wrong.

On Tuesday, coach Steve Hansen granted the 23-year-old Cane the honour of becoming the fifth youngest of all the 67 men to captain the world’s most famous rugby team. It left him humbled and a bit shocked but it was no surprise to any of his colleagues, who have long believed he is made for leadership.

Usual skipper Richie McCaw will be watching from the bench on Thursday at Olympic Park whileCane takes the reins against Namibia, in a completely changed side from the one which beat Argentina 26-16 on Sunday, a win cemented by Cane's late try.  

For Cane, this is a case of life being turned upside down. For three years the Bay of Plenty No 7 has learned to play understudy to McCaw, hardly the easiest role. McCaw has legendary status and is also likely to keep on playing, as he did in the 2011 World Cup, on one foot.

Yet Cane has never complained, he has always been diligent when his nation calls and those who have watched the Chiefs loose forward in all his 25 tests, 14 of which have featured him snatching his brief chance when coming off the bench, cannot recall him having even one poor outing. Cane has always been able.

Uncanny similarities

Admiration for him is such that Hansen reckoned he was looking to the future, to life after McCaw, when selecting Cane. There are uncanny similarities, of course; brilliant opensides both, McCaw, at 23 years 10 months, was only two months older than Cane is now when he first captained the team in November 2004. 

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So, though Hansen made it clear that Kieran Read, who will also start on the bench on Thursday, has effectively been anointed as the next permanent holder of one of sport’s most exacting on-field jobs, the longer-term future in a camp which plans ahead better than any other rugby nation evidently belongs to Cane. Not just because he is a leader, Hansen reckoned, but primarily because he was “fierce, fearless, hugely respected - and a very special player”.

“The similarity between all three of those guys (Kieran Read, McCaw and Cane) is that they’re really good rugby players first and foremost. They can see the big picture, it is not just about them,” Hansen said.

“Sam’s time in behind Richie has been good for him in that he’s had to think about the team not just himself. He has also led the Chiefs and led them well.

“It is an overwhelming place to come into, the All Blacks. Special players sometimes don’t make it but he had the mental fortitude and he thrived in the environment. After a while, we thought he was capable of being a leader so we put him in the leadership group and he’s done a good job there.”

Cane, though, was “taken aback” to learn of his elevation on Monday, news that he was able to share delightedly with his parents, who are in England to watch.

Hugely honoured

“It was extremely special to become an All Black for the first time but to be able to lead your country out stands even above that. So I’m hugely honoured and extremely excited about it,” Cane said.

“I was thinking with the short turnaround between games that it would be good just to get a start and then Steve says, ‘You’ll be starting but you’ll also be captain’. It took me back a little bit. But it is something I’m hugely honoured about and I’ll make sure I go out and do it to the best of my ability.”

McCaw, along with Cane’s teammates who all seemed genuinely thrilled for him, offered his congratulations and told him that he was there for Cane if he needed any advice.

Yet few of his teammates believe Cane will have any problems coping with the role, five of them having seen his leadership qualities at an early age when he was helping inspire the “Baby Blacks” to junior World Cup triumph in 2011.

“To see him captain the All Blacks is a very proud moment,” his Chiefs’ teammate Liam Messam said.

Yet as for the comparisons with McCaw, Messam could not help smiling: “They have got the same haircut.

“They are different players, though – Richie will be Richie McCaw and Sam will be Sam Cane.” Quite. Not the second McCaw, but the first Cane. 

RNS ic/js/co/sw