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Right man for the job

Liam Messam

When Sam Cane first wandered into Chiefs training about a decade ago, I was blown away at the size of him.

Here was a teenager, built like a fully grown man and putting plenty of the Chiefs boys to shame.

When Sam Cane first wandered into Chiefs training about a decade ago, I was blown away at the size of him.

Here was a teenager, built like a fully grown man and putting plenty of the Chiefs boys to shame.

Sammy arrived alongside another teenage prodigy, Carl Axtens. Carl was the one who attracted the most attention – he’d been a bit of a superstar at high school, but Sam was just as impressive.

That first day when they came in to join the Chiefs for a training session, I remember thinking ‘bloody hell, when I was at high school, I couldn’t even bench press 60kg’.

Times had obviously changed a lot between when I was at school and when the new crop of young guys started to join the professional rugby ranks, adding a bit of bulk had clearly become a new focus.

Sam Cane is tackled by Sharks forwards Jacques Botes and Jannie du Plessis in 2012. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

And although Sammy was an absolute man-child when he first arrived – still just a teenager but with the frame of a professional player 10 years his senior, I was still impressed with how he went about his work. He wasn’t overwhelmed training alongside Super Rugby legends like Mils Muliaina, Tana Umaga and Tanerau Latimer, he just got stuck in.

Tanerau was a really good mentor for him. They pushed each other and I think they sort of brought the best out of each other, especially in terms of selection.

Once Sammy joined as a full-time Chief, those two were always going toe to toe to make the starting team every week – but it was always in a really good-natured way.

I was still impressed with how he went about his work. He wasn’t overwhelmed training alongside Super Rugby legends like Mils Muliaina, Tana Umaga and Tanerau Latimer, he just got stuck in.

I actually remember Sammy’s first start for the Chiefs pretty well, because we were playing the Crusaders in Napier. That was 2011, when the Crusaders had to play all their home games out of Christchurch because of the earthquakes.

That game really sticks out to me because Sam was going head-to-head with Richie McCaw, the best of the best, and he’d only been a full-time professional for a couple of months. But he just put his head down and went to work – he’s not changed at all in that way – and I remember thinking at the time that he was going to be a pretty special player.

Sammy’s not like the typical loose forwards that you have now around New Zealand that can run in open play, step and offload – but he does all the hard, dirty work that someone has to do. He’s one of the best in the business at helping everyone around him play better and stand out, even if you don’t always notice him.

He does get the odd highlight reel tackle in, of course – but even when his hits don’t look big, they always are.

Every time a kid asks me about tackle technique, I just tell them to go watch Sam Cane. That man has got the best tackle technique I’ve ever seen.

When he hits you, he hits you. It may not look big on TV or for the crowd, but not many people get even half a metre on him. It must be all that time spent out on the farm in Reporoa.

Every time a kid asks me about tackle technique, I just tell them to go watch Sam Cane. That man has got the best tackle technique I’ve ever seen.

Thankfully, I’ve never had to play against the guy – and whenever we had one-on-one tackling sessions, I always made sure we weren’t standing near each other. You don’t play rugby until you’re 36 by running into Sam Cane. I’m smarter than that. 

He’s not just a good tackler or a good player though, he’s always been a good leader. Like a lot of guys around New Zealand, he leads by example first of all – but he’s not afraid to speak up either.

Sammy was confident when he joined the Chiefs leadership group, pretty much as soon as he became a full-time squad member, but I’ve also seen him grow into the role a lot over the last 10 years.

I’ve seen his growth in the way he articulates his words and the way he expresses himself verbally as well as physically. He’s a leader that the boys will get in behind and follow, so I wasn’t surprised at all when Ian Foster named him All Blacks captain. I knew the potential that he had, and that he’d already shown from a young age.

He’s always had that presence about himself as a leader and his presence on the field is always increasing.

He’ll have the backing of all the players and management; I’m sure the boys will go to war alongside him.

I remember at the 2015 World Cup, when Sam first captained the All Blacks. We were playing Namibia and I knew that we would be naming a pretty fresh team. I was ecstatic when Sammy was given the captain’s armband but even then, I wasn’t too surprised.

Cane on attack for the All Blacks against Namibia in 2015, his first time leading the team as captain. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

He’s a great motivator, he’ll get people to run through a brick wall – and he’s also good at building relationships with referees, which is obviously important. He always asks the right questions and he’s pretty calm under pressure.

Back with the Chiefs, we always had co-captains under Dave Rennie and that worked pretty well. When it was me and Craig Clarke, Craig was probably one of the best guys in the business at talking with refs, he was so calm and collected – I was the total opposite! I was definitely more of a do-er. 

I think with Sammy, the All Blacks will have the best of both worlds. I’ve got no doubt that when he runs out there as the permanent captain for the first time, he’s going to do an awesome job.

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