Sam Cane calls them the “big rocks” – the foundation stones of any turnaround that is going to play out as the All Blacks head into a daunting pair of matches against the world champion Springboks to open the Rugby Championship.
On the surface it’s an unpromising situation indeed for Cane and his New Zealanders who have lost four of their last five test matches, including a devastating 2-1 home series defeat against Ireland in July that threatened to turn their nation of rugby followers inside-out .
There was a lot to regret from that, and indeed the twin defeats last November. The All Blacks forwards have been off the mark, the defense sporadic, kicking game often aimless, set-piece work messy and attack lacking clarity, sharpness and a discernible plan. On the plus side, at least Ardie Savea and Will Jordan played well.
Since the final whistle in Wellington, the recriminations have flowed and the consensus from seasoned observers has been they need to stop back the detail, simplify the plan and let the players run out with uncluttered heads and clear minds.
Cane has more or less agreed with that, by pointing out, to answer a query from stuff, the “fixes” in the All Blacks are not as widespread as some may realize. In fact as the All Blacks skipper looks at it, you mend a couple of key things, most of the problems go away.
“It may seem like there’s a lot to fix from the outside, but in camp we’ve got a couple of really clear focuses, and often when you get the big rocks of a forward pack right, a lot of those smaller things which may seem like issues sort themselves out,” he said from the team’s training base in Ingwenyama, just out of Mbombela.
“The hardest bit after the last game was actually going home for a week. As much as we needed the break from it all, it was so good to get back in Wellington for that two-day camp and start putting the work in to fix things. It didn’t feel like you could really move forward till we started getting things right.”
New Zealand Rugby, in their wisdom, have tried not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They’ve shed a couple of assistant coaches, kept the boss Ian Foster in place at least for these two matches in the republic, and they’ve brought in Jason Ryan from the Crusaders to take the forwards.
Cane, contrary to speculation from some quarters, has remained as captain.
Asked about the balance of keeping confidence up ahead of such a daunting challenge, the skipper reiterated his “we’ve got this” stance.
“It’s important we don’t focus on all these things that are going wrong because the truth is there are not heaps of things that are going wrong, and with top teams there are small margins between games,” said Cane.
“For example the last game we lost by 10, but we let in two rolling maul tries which as an All Blacks forward pack is something we don’t see as acceptable. We fix something like that and that’s one big rock sorted out. So we focus on what we need to, and there is a lot of stuff we are doing well, so we focus on that as well instead of just drilling down on what’s not going well.”
Cane also gave a massive tick to the addition of Ryan, who has been brought in to address supposed player concerns about the direction the forwards were getting.
“Jase has been outstanding,” said Cane. “He has come in and taken control and found his feet from him straight away. He’s clearly very knowledgeable and knows what he wants out of our forward pack. I feel like we’ve made some good strides already the last couple of days.”
There has also been plenty of conjecture around just how much damage the absence of South African teams from Super Rugby has done. Cane’s response to a question directly related to that indicated it’s a real thing.
“Super Rugby is certainly different these days to pre-Covid. That’s just the reality,” he added. “If you speak to any of the Kiwi boys, we always enjoy playing the South Africans to test ourselves physically. Although we pride ourselves on playing skilfully, the physical side is a component that a lot of our boys relish as well.
“We knew a long time ago how tough these two games were going to be when we looked at the first five matches of our schedule. But it was always exciting because 1, it’s been a while; and 2, I’ve never in my 10 or so years had two test matches back to back in South Africa. As an All Black you love tests and times that really challenge you – and this is certainly one of those.”