Comparisons between the games of McCaw and Cane are revealing.

OPINION: Every young golfer, and every old one come to that, gets asked the Tiger Woods question. It used to drive Ernie Els mad. And so it is with aspiring New Zealand flankers. They live in the All Black shadow of Richie McCaw. Young Sam Cane had an impressive game in La Plata on Sunday, but Steve Hansen will personally carry McCaw onto the pitch against South Africa if he has to.

Comparisons between the games of McCaw and Cane are revealing. There are some things that the young blood, and there was lots of that spouting from the forehead in the first encounter against the Springboks, does better than the old maestro. However in war you need a leader. Cane may sound like the sheriff from High Noon, but he is not yet quite ready to walk down Main Street alone.

And Ellis Park is a nightmare on Main Street, with even all the townsfolk out to get you. As a 12-year-old boy I was squashed atop a rickety scaffolding stand as the Boer bayed for blood. It was a miracle the shelves of planks and tubes didn’t collapse under the extra weight of thousands of ticketless fans who had crammed into the ground that afternoon. Ellis Park is one of the most intimidating sporting environments on God’s earth.

Thank goodness nearly 40 years on the health and safety has improved for the fans, because the men responsible for Ellis Park back in the day should have been prosecuted. These days the greatest health and safety issues concern the players. That is why the All Blacks, who have lost eight of their 11 tests on the ground, want McCaw against the Boks.

A year ago South Africa took the battle to the All Blacks in New Zealand and may well have won the day but for the abysmal goal kicking of Morne Steyn and the defiance of McCaw. The man is a warrior. Not all his powers are quite as superhero as they once were, but South Africa respect him like no other player.

The same is far from true of Cane just yet, as it could not be at the age of 21. I don’t know if the All Blacks have teased the young man about it, but when the brawl at Eden Park went off following Du Plessis’s legitimate hit on Carter, Cane looked puzzled and then waded in on Morne Steyn. It was amusing at the time, but somehow I don’t see McCaw bothering to take the bout.

But the major flaw that has shown up in Cane’s game over the previous couple of weeks is his scrummaging. The Pumas’ flankers pack down left and right and so they are always in behind the same prop. Cane packs on the openside and the props that he has been behind have all had significant problems.

Owen Franks was destroyed by the Beast in the opening scrummage against South Africa. Franks again had problems against Argentina and so did Tony Woodcock on a couple of occasions. Cane was the common denominator.

There is no doubt that the All Blacks scrum misses the mighty Brad Thorn and there is no doubt that its props are all-rounders rather than out and out scrummagers. But Liam Messam certainly appeared to give his props more back-up and so McCaw’s greater power will be welcomed back on the other side. Maybe that was part of the reason why the Chiefs went with Tanerau Latimer and Matt Vant Leven ahead of Cane in the final two knock-out matches, in order to establish their scrum.

Body strength is a work-in-progress for Cane. He is not a jackal. He cannot win the valuable turnover ball that McCaw or David Pocock or George Smith so often do. He is not strong enough or perhaps even smart enough yet to get over the ball and stay there. The All Blacks lost quite a lot of turnovers in the first match against the Boks and will be hoping that McCaw can turn that around.

At the moment, in both defence and attack, Cane’s game is all about continuity. Against the Pumas his tackle count was off the scale. To be hyper critical, if Cane could develop the chop tackle that Wales’ Dan Lydiate has perfected, then he would offer his team even more opportunity to turn ball over. He gets off the line with great speed, but could yet be more destructive in the tackle.

As a ball runner and handler Cane is better than McCaw. The kid has softer hands and an instinct for evading the tackle. In the lead-up to the move where Cane scored the crucial try against the Pumas, Nonu had flung one of those passes that exposes the ribs of the catcher. Marcelo Bosch lined up Cane, but the flanker twisted and broke the tackle.

Cane’s ‘acting’ as the decoy in the move that sent Ben Smith through – and how shrewdly New Zealand showed up Nicolas Sanchez’s defensive frailty – was also first rate. Cane’s positional instincts and game reading define him as one for the future. He twice mopped up breakaway kicks by the Pumas. But the All Blacks want their man of steel back.

McCaw’s influence will be vital both in the battle and on the referee. The ‘tweeting’ Nigel Owens can be more susceptible than some to the game’s powerbrokers. Owens cost Argentina the game in Australia by his apparently partial refusal to yellow card the Aussies for professional fouls and repeated infringements.

New Zealand’s penalty deferential has rocketed under Kieran Read’s captaincy. Owens looks up to McCaw like most of the rugby world. It could be the difference between winning and losing.

– © Fairfax NZ News

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About Martin Myers
Music Supervisor / Artist and Talent Manager / Publicist / Music Exchange Founder / Owner Triple M Entertainment

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