Sport

FINAL WHISTLE

Ruthless culling of Cane from All Blacks captaincy should be a warning for Kolisi

Ruthless culling of Cane from All Blacks captaincy should be a warning for Kolisi
New Zealand captain Sam Cane looks dejected at full-time after the World Cup final against South Africa at Stade de France in Paris on 28 October 2023. (Photo: Cameron Spencer / Getty Images)

Sam Cane, the man who had the unenviable task of succeeding Kieran Read who followed Richie McCaw as All Black captain, will not lead the team again.

On Monday Sam Cane revealed he will no longer captain the All Blacks and that he has taken an early release from his New Zealand Rugby (NZR) contract and will play club rugby in Japan from 2025.

Even though Cane remains in New Zealand in 2024, he will not lead the All Blacks as new coach Scott Robertson opts for a new course. It’s a disappointing end to Cane’s 27-match tenure as captain and possibly also the end of his 12-year, 95-cap All Blacks career.

It should also be a warning to France-based Bok skipper Siya Kolisi because coach Rassie Erasmus openly mulled changing the captaincy at the launch of the Bok season on 12 March.

The Rugby World Cup 2027 cycle begins this year and coaches are not only setting short-term goals, but laying down long-term roots too.

Cane (32) had a clause in his contract in 2023, allowing him to take a sabbatical from New Zealand club rugby and the Chiefs, while remaining eligible for the All Blacks.

Scott Robertson speaks to media after being announced as the next All Blacks coach. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images)

Dejected All Blacks skipper Sam Cane during the World Cup 2023 final against the Springboks at Stade de France in Paris on 28 October 2023. (Photo: Franco Arland / Getty Images)

Last year Cane played for Suntory Sungoliath in Japan but returned to captain the All Blacks at Rugby World Cup 2023 in France even though NZR still has a policy of not selecting overseas-based players.

Cane again played in Japan at the start of this year, last turning out for Suntory on 20 January due to a back injury, but has since returned to New Zealand as the Super Rugby playoff race comes into focus. He is part of the Chiefs’ training squad but is unlikely to feature in Super Rugby this year.

“A good opportunity came my way with Suntory Sungoliath willing to offer me a three-year contract,” Cane said. “It was something we had to seriously consider as a family due to the stage I am at in my career. It will see me through to 2027 when I’ll have my 35th birthday.

“I’ve always thought that if I can play professional rugby for that length of time I’d be doing really well considering the position I play and the age that I started playing professionally.

“I had to weigh up everything and, in the end, with a young family it seemed like the best decision to help set up our future. It was a very hard one because I love the teams that I represent here in New Zealand.”

Red card stain

The added agony for Cane is that his last act as All Black captain was to become the first player to earn a red card in a World Cup final when he received his marching orders at the Stade de France against the Springboks last year.

The Boks went on to win the match 12-11 and claim their fourth world title and second in succession. With two Tests against the Springboks in South Africa to come in 2024, it appeared Cane could have the chance to atone for that setback in Saint Denis last October.

Sadly, in the cutthroat world of elite sport, it’s unlikely Cane will be part of the squad that tours South Africa later this year.

“It’s part of the natural process that happens in rugby. I had my time as captain and it was a huge honour and privilege,” Cane said.

“If I’m fortunate enough to be selected in the All Blacks this year then I’ll still be myself.

“I love that team and I just want to see the All Blacks do well, so if part of my role is contributing leadership off the field or on the field, I’ll be happy to support the new captain as best as I can to help make it a smooth transition for the All Blacks.

Sam Cane red carded

All Blacks captain Sam Cane after the team’s narrow defeat at the hands of South Africa in the World Cup final on 28 October 2023. (Photo: Cameron Spencer / Getty Images)

“I’m really grateful for the time that I had to wear the captain’s armband. It was a huge honour and privilege – a lot of lessons out of it and growth.”

Robertson revealed that he and Cane had discussed his future and that it was time to go in a different direction regarding the All Blacks’ leadership.

“After discussing this at length with Sam, I fully understand the reasons [he is moving to Japan] behind his decision and support him,” Robertson said.

“The position he plays [openside flank] asks a lot of you mentally and physically – both of those things ramp up when you are captain. So, to do what he’s done over such a long period is an incredible feat.”

Robertson was tight-lipped on Cane’s successor but informed speculation out of New Zealand is that he will turn to lock Scott Barrett.

The pair shared a successful coach/captain relationship where Barrett won seven Super Rugby titles under Robertson. Current World Player of the Year Ardie Savea remains the other candidate.

New Zealand captain Sam Cane tackles Faf de Klerk of South Africa as Springbok captain Siya Kolisi looks on during a World Cup 2023 warm-up match at Twickenham Stadium in London on 25 August 2023. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

Savea has been on sabbatical in Japan in 2024 but is eligible for the All Blacks.

“There’s been conversations that have been had,” Robertson said about the All Black captaincy vacancy, with July Tests against England and Fiji as their first assignments in 2024.

“And discussions, with players. Yes, there has been. That’s all I can say.’’

Kolisi to follow Cane?

Earlier this year Erasmus strongly suggested that Kolisi’s time as Springbok captain was up because he is playing club rugby for Racing 92 in France.

Unpacking that decision, it doesn’t feel like a good enough reason considering Kolisi has led the Boks for six years and that the national team operates in a self-contained bubble.

Erasmus can call Kolisi any time. The latest Bok alignment camps on 3 and 4 May were done virtually anyway, with no players required to be in situ.

Kolisi

Siya Kolisi of South Africa looks on during the World Cup 2023 final against New Zealand at Stade de France in Paris on 28 October 2023. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Rassie Erasmus

Rassie Erasmus. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

But Erasmus was firm in his stance that ideally the Bok skipper should be living and playing in South Africa.

“Siya is playing some of his best rugby, but I prefer to have my captain locally based as that allows for more interaction,” Erasmus said at the time.

“This is a unique situation and I think he (Kolisi) will play some Test matches, he certainly wants to, but we are not sure about the captaincy.

“There’s a lot of players who have signed with overseas clubs with clauses in their contracts that say they will stop playing international rugby. Siya has not signed with a clause like that,” Erasmus said.

“That’s the first thing that tells you he wants to play for South Africa. I think he is playing some of his best rugby. He looks really relaxed.”

While it would be a massive call to relieve Kolisi of the captaincy, Erasmus has never been afraid to make bold decisions.

Clearly the All Blacks are looking to the future and Robertson’s decision to remove Cane as skipper could be a catalyst for Erasmus and the Springboks to follow suit as a new World Cup cycle starts in earnest. DM

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