Campbell Burnes caught up with the All Blacks captain as he plotted his rehab back from major surgery.
The headline for this story could apply equally to Sam Cane’s six-month rehab after pec and shoulder surgery and the story of how the Chiefs overcame 11 straight defeats to reach the final of Super Rugby Aotearoa last month.
Cane went under the knife in April to repair a torn pectoral (chest) muscle, but found there were other issues to sort. One of his shoulders was “buggered” and also needed to go under the knife.
“It makes sense why I tore my pec, because my shoulder was so loose,” says the 29-year-old, from a campervan somewhere in the South Island, where he was holidaying with his wife. Harriet.
Cane quips that he had four surgeries in one, which sounds serious but doesn’t affect his projected timeline for a playing return, likely to be October. So potentially there could be an outing or two for the Bay of Plenty Steamers before he flies to Europe with the All Blacks.
Cane is not going to heap too much pressure on himself to make it back by a certain date. Naturally, he wants to be 100 percent when he does.
“I wouldn’t want to rush it. The surgeon said if he wasn’t seeing me this year, he was going to see me at some point (in 2022 or 2023),” he says.
For a man who never had a serious injury before 2018, Cane has certainly made up for that. After his neck fracture in 2018, Covid-19 hit in 2020 forcing everyone to put their feet up, and now this.
Mind you, the Chiefs normally have injury crises with their props. Now they seem to have been struck with the curse of their loose forwards, a sick bay list of 2021 that reads: Cane, Mitch Karpik, Luke Jacobson, Lachie and Kaylum Boshier, Simon Parker, Mitch Brown and Samipeni Finau. There may be a high attrition rate in the loosies, but that is ridiculous.
Fortunately, Cane is well attuned to dealing with adversity.
“My approach is always to look for the positives or a silver lining. I know my shoulder’s going to be 100 percent
Cane still went into Chiefs HQ most days during the first five weeks after surgery as his arm was in a sling and he did his physio. He still wanted to contribute as the official franchise captain. He did reckon, however, that he wasn’t much use watching the game in the coaches’ box in the 26-25 win over the Crusaders in Hamilton.
“It was interesting. It’s probably a more intense way to watch the game. I didn’t help the tension in there,” he says.
The coaches really live every moment, especially head coach Clayton McMillan, who could be seen banging hard, for joy, on the window after that tight victory.
Liam Messam’s presence has helped, the 37-year-old answering the SOS.
“He’s ageless. He was popping in once a week just to get some training in with us and hoping to play for Waikato later this season. The boys got a kick having him around.”
I put it to Cane that there must have been more to the Chiefs’ resurrection than just Damian McKenzie kicking a few pressure, match-winning goals and the scrum improving out of sight, anchored by Angus Ta’avao and Aidan Ross.
“It’s really tough to pinpoint. We probably should have put the Highlanders away in round one. We had a really good lead and then crumbled under pressure, which was ironic because we later came out on the right side of most pressure games,” says Cane.
“There was a really big focus, driven by Clayton, on having a bit of fun. You could be hard on each other, but know that it was coming from a caring place, if you get what I mean? It wasn’t a doom and gloom environment.
“It’s a pretty resilient group and the nucleus have been together for a few years now. The scrum came right and we know how important it is to be kicking some of those goals.
“We also spent a lot of time talking about executing your role when the pressure mounts. If you all do that, we can all get out the other side. It doesn’t have to be a miracle play. That made my injury tougher, because I’d been part of 11 straight losses and then we had two wins on the trot. The energy and camaraderie in the changing room after a good win… I love that about rugby. I took immense pride and enjoyment in seeing them go all the way to the final.”
Cane weathered the slings and arrows of outrageous rugby fortune in 2020, assuming the All Blacks’ captain’s armband, playing the house down for the men in black, even as his team was struggling for consistency. He made some pointed remarks on TV about the knowledge of some rugby fans. While
he was largely on the mark, the timing, just after the bad defeat to the Pumas, was awry.
But he started the season as the cover man for the esteemed Rugby Almanack after winning the Kel Tremain Memorial Trophy award for being the best player in the country.
“I was happy with my form. Being my first year as skipper, the most important thing was leading well with my performances. That helps with all your leadership off the field, but at the same time I was disappointed with our consistency,” he says.
Cane feels that, after a messy and intense 2020 international season, with more depth in several positions, the All Blacks should be better placed to kick on in 2021, especially if they have a clear run through eight or nine home Tests.
He, of course, won’t be running out for most of them, but he still has his views on who might take the captaincy and slot into the No 7 jersey.
Ardie Savea was primarily used at No 8 in 2020, but he could certainly slot into his favoured No 7 jersey if required. What of Dalton Papali’i, who has made big strides at the Blues in 2021, and appeals as a skilled allround opensider, his soft touches allied with some of Cane’s famed toughness?
“He’s put his hand up massively this season. I’m always been impressed with Dalton as a footballer and as a person. He hasn’t had too many opportunities in the black jersey, though he’s been around the squad for a while, but if he gets his chance no doubt he’ll take it.”
Sam Whitelock is the name I put to Cane when suggesting who might step up to lead the All Blacks in July.
“That makes a lot of sense. He’s done the job before, will command a starting position and has played so well this year. I haven’t chatted to Foz (Ian Foster) about it, but I won’t have too much say anyway,” he quips.
Cane’s NZR contract is up at the end of 2021, but talks are well underway to extend. The detail is just being hammered out at this point.
“I’m keen to stick around. I feel like I’ve still got a lot to offer, so I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” say Cane.
He might have added that he will have a rebuilt upper torso with which to inflict pain on his opponents from 2022.