WELLINGTON – Openside flanker Sam Cane played a solid 41 minutes off the bench on his return to Super Rugby at Eden Park on Saturday, handing All Blacks coach Steve Hansen a pre-World Cup boost and an enviable selection quandary.
Cane's run-out for the Chiefs in their 23-8 loss to the Auckland Blues was his first since he broke a bone in his neck in the All Blacks' 32-30 win over South Africa in Pretoria last October.
"I was a little bit nervous coming in obviously, but I just tried to remember why you first played rugby and in the start it's just to go out there and have some fun," Cane said.
"It's just been about setting small goals and chipping away at them until you achieve the final one of getting back on the pitch. It has been challenging but a good test for me."
His return will doubtless prompt numerous heated debates in the rugby-mad country as to whether Hansen will slot the 27-year-old straight back into his starting side ahead of their title defence in Japan.
Cane's injury opened the door for the explosive Ardie Savea to shake off the super-sub role that had previously defined his international career, with 24 of his 37 test appearances coming from the bench.
Savea was first-choice openside flanker on the end-of-year tour last year, although his ability to compete physically was questioned as the All Blacks pack were dominated by the big England and Ireland forwards.
The 25-year-old, who is 1.88m tall and about 100 kg, has put a lot of that criticism to bed this Super Rugby season and arguably been New Zealand's form player.
Savea's speed has always distinguished him from other loose forwards but his already impressive ability to make ground after contact in his ball-carrying has improved this year.
His work off the ball -- he turned and chased down runaway Otago Highlanders winger Tevita Li to saved a certain try in April -- has been top notch while his defence and contact at the breakdown have also been noticeably more physical.
Such has been the level and standard of his play that few believed Cane would take the New Zealand number seven jersey back when he returned.
The dilemma for Hansen is that until his injury Cane was one of the most aggressive and consistent defenders in the All Blacks -- excelling at his job without any fuss like his predecessor in the position, Richie McCaw.
If Cane comes through the season with no fitness concerns, both should be on the plane to Japan, but Hansen will have to think hard as to who will be his starter, especially for their World Cup opener on Sept. 21 against the Springboks in Yokohama.Reuters