World Cups can be yawn-inducing events for players who have so much time to kill between their daily duties and Steve Hansen’s All Blacks could do worse than spend an afternoon staring at the walls of their Lensbury Park Hotel.
Situated in a quiet corner of Teddington on London’s southwest corner, the hotel is decorated with decades of sporting memorabilia, including a dozen or so framed tennis racquets once used by the likes of John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl.
The Ireland Olympic team stayed here for the 2012 Games and left a signed jersey and photograph to prove it, as have a myriad of rugby teams stretching back at least as far as the Wallabies party that toured Britain and Ireland in 1982.
The conference centre boasts rooms named after various England legends ranging alphabetically from Rob Andrew to, ahem, Joe Worsley, but Hansen was in the business yesterday of pushing through a new generation of Kiwi greats.
The match day squad he named to face Namibia at the Olympic Stadium tomorrow night comprises just 401 caps. The bench, by considerable way of contrast, boasts 660.
To put that in context, Ireland’s starting XV against Canada totalled just half-a-dozen more. So, while men like Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Tony Woodcock provide back-up, it will fall to a side captained for the first time by the baby-faced 23-year-old Sam Cane to handle the slaughter of the African minnows.
And, at the same time, take another step towards preparing for the days when McCaw and Dan Carter and their like are no longer the pillars on which the current team is constructed.
“Future-proofing,” the All Blacks was how Hansen put it.
Quite the luxury that in the middle of a World Cup.
Cane’s elevation to armband status pretty much dominated yesterday’s media conference. He will be the 67th man to captain the team and the fifth-youngest, bumping his fellow openside McCaw down to sixth in the process.
Those similarities between Cane and McCaw have been remarked upon time and again, even before the younger man was elevated to the senior ranks.
“Aw, they’ve got the same haircut,” Liam Messam added when asked about the like-for-like factor.
He’s right. They do.
Kieran Read will skipper the side once McCaw’s Test career ends after this World Cup, but Cane’s progression from outstanding Baby Black to senior debut against Ireland in June of 2012 and on to the leadership group and captaincy has been electric.
Hansen admitted that he would be “bullshitting” if he said that he saw a future captain in the youngster when he first rocked up to camp, but he lauded the young man’s qualities as a player and a person all the same.
Many has been the man and rugby player who has possessed those attributes, Hansen said, and a lot of them fail to cope with the unique pressure that comes with wearing the silver fern. Cane had his critics in the past, but he came through and is thriving now.
“He’s got a reasonably tricky job in following (McCaw), said Hansen with a good degree of understatement. “He plays very well whenever he gets his opportunity and he is part of the leadership group. He’s got a good rugby brain and he is young. There are other guys we could have chosen, but we looked to the future in the end.”
Cane is one of six members of the current squad – the others being Cody Taylor, Brodie Retallick, Cane, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett and Waisake Naholo — who have made it from the standout Junior World Championship winning class of 2011.
That was a team that saw off an outstanding England side that had George Ford, Joe Launchbury and a clutch of others who have also gone on to make considerable marks at senior level, but Cane, Taylor, Perenara and Barrett will face nothing like that quality against Namibia tomorrow.
“I don’t want any injuries,” said Hansen of the Pool C game. “That would be a good start, touch wood. We want to go out there and execute our game against some opposition. We don’t know a lot about Namibia because we haven’t played them before.
“We do know that they will have taken a lot of heart out of what happened (between Japan and South Africa) in Brighton. Most teams get up for the All Blacks and I don’t see this being any different. They will have their moments in the game and we will see how we react to that.”
C Slade; N Milner-Skudder, M Fekitoa, SB Williams, J Savea; B Barrett, TJ Perenara; B Franks, C Taylor, C Faumuina; L Romano, S Whitelock; L Messam, S Cane, V Vito.
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