Our guest contributor and Lead Performance Analyst for Namibia Andy Jones takes a look at those battling to replace Richie McCaw at openside for the All Blacks. 

One of the greatest rugby players in the world has retired. A player who won the world player of the year accolade on three occasions. A man that has won countless trophies, including back to back RWC’s! Perhaps the most consistent performer in history of the game, I am of course talking about Richie McCaw…

Acting as Richie McCaw’s understudy for the last four years has been Sam Cane who made his super rugby debut at 18, got selected for the All Blacks squad at 20, is held in such high esteem by the AB’s backroom staff that he has been part of their leadership group since 2013 and captained his country for the first time against Namibia at RWC 2015. He has already amassed 30 caps at 23 years of age.

Surely then, Sam Cane can now establish himself as the next great All Black openside? Emulating Michael Jones, Josh Kronfeld and of course Richie McCaw to name but a few. However, Sam has reason to look over his shoulder…Ardie Savea & Matthew Todd will attempt to sideline his ambitions.

Richie McCaw

I’ve been a huge fan of Richie McCaw since I can remember but like everyone he has his faults. He had a tendency to not use a lead leg in a tackle, the knock on effect would be passive tackles or over chasing in the defensive line, leaving him vulnerable to an inside ball or a step back inside by the ball carrier. He was the master at the tackle jackal transition. What I mean by this is the ability to make a tackle and using the momentum of the tackle to get back to his feet incredibly quickly, allowing himself the best possible opportunity to jackal the ball or at the very least disrupt opposition ball at the breakdown and slow it down.

Sam Cane

Sam is similar to Richie McCaw in certain aspects of his game. Sam is comfortable attacking in the wide channels and making the correct decisions with the ball in hand. Sam is usually on the shoulder of the player with the ball, a prerequisite for an open side, and has the skill set to cause carnage at the breakdown. It is not possible to be able to complete jackals with every tackle but you can slow the ball down for the opposition by either attempting to jackal or counter rucking.

There is absolutely no question that Sam Cane is an excellent player but the question is does he have reason to be looking over his shoulder in the coming years?

Matthew Todd

Matt has a tendency to tackle high on the body. Does this matter? Does this affect his ability to jackal the ball? The knock on effect can be critical. The tackle jackal transition is not an easy skill to master, but you have to be able to make low effective tackles and then use the momentum generated to get back to your feet, show your hands and jackal the ball. One of the main roles of a 7 is to be successful at the breakdown. When you tackle high you leave yourself vulnerable to fends and increase the time it takes time to bring the opposition to ground and waste valuable time to jackal the ball before other players arrive.

If another player is making the tackle and you are the next player in the defensive line do you assist with the tackle or wait until the tackle has been carried out and attempt to jackal the ball or counter ruck? This split second decision making is pivotal and you can’t hesitate so you have to be extremely efficient not only in your decision making but technical ability. At the moment Matt takes too long making a gain line tackle to give himself the best chance to jackal.

Ardie Savea

Ardie like Sam was nominated for the world young player of the year. With good reason, I remember watching him play in the JWC final a few years ago and being impressed with him along with England’s Jack Clifford. He is already more of an attacking weapon than the other players I’ve talked about, including Richie McCaw. Ardie is quick, dynamic & seems to evade the first defender by either steam rolling them or using his agility to get beyond the gain line.

What Ardie does incredibly well is to allow someone else to make the tackle and then come in without hesitation to jackal the ball and it is very effective. This is only one aspect of his defensive breakdown work but one he utilizes so brilliantly. Once he has his grip on the ball, almost Pocock esque…you are done for! He has been successfully used at No.8 by Wellington in the ITM Cup, as well as captaining the side, where his ball carrying ability has become evident. Like Sam, he is always on the shoulder of the ball carrier and has the skill set of when to pass and when not to. He seems to have that instinctive decision making ability to anticipate what the opposition is going to do.

Conclusion

Does Sam Cane have reason to be looking over his shoulder? The answer is yes.

Is Matt Todd good enough to dethrone Sam from the 7 jersey? No. He is a very good player, I’m not disputing that at all, but to be an All Black 7 you have to be exceptional. I’m not sure Matt Todd is suited to the position, but his place is somewhere in the backrow. Ardie Savea is an incredibly exciting player, he has all of the attributes necessary to become the All Black 7 but it certainly won’t be easy. Sam is in the strongest position at the moment especially with Ardie going to the Olympics with the 7’s, while Sam gains more experience with the test side. 2016 will be Sam Cane’s year in the All Black 7 jersey but 2017 and beyond could witness an enthralling battle that has not been witnessed before…I believe Ardie and Sam will battle for years over the 7 shirt but Sam certainly has the head start. Could they play in the back row together? Ardie Savea at 6 & Sam Cane at 7? Now that is an exciting prospect.

Unfortunately my initial question has posed even more questions. It will be exciting to see how this develops.

Andy Jones.

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