SAM Cane has had plenty of recent practice when it comes to eating humble pie as the losing captain at awkward post-match interviews. It started with Super Rugby Aotearoa when the (Waikato) Chiefs side he skippered were whitewashed, although openside flanker Cane – who was announced as New Zealand captain in May following Kieran Read’s retirement – probably thought that his days of “taking it on the chin” would be over as soon as he pulled on the All Black jersey again.
Instead, after a draw and a couple of big wins over Australia, Cane was soon back in hangdog mode after the Wallabies edged out New Zealand 24-22 in their first meeting on Aussie soil in the opening round of the Tri Nations Series a fortnight ago.
He could have been forgiven for thinking that the next game against Argentina, who had a Covid-hit logistical nightmare getting to the tournament in Australia, let alone playing in it, would be the signal for the All Blacks to resume business as usual.
Cane got a rude awakening as Argentina dug-in for an epic 25-15 victory in which they barely missed a tackle. It made him the first New Zealand captain to lose to Argentina in 30 Tests, and forced him to go back into ‘Sorry Sam’ mode when asked for his reaction at the Bankwest Stadium in Sydney.
It has been a tough baptism for Cane, as well as for Ian Foster since his appointment as head coach after the 2019 World Cup, but the New Zealand skipper did not help himself with a couple of dodgy judgement calls.
The first was in letting his team’s discipline slip against a fiercely committed Pumas outfit for whom Pablo Matera was an inspirational leader.
The New Zealand niggle started with an early open-hand slap by Shannon Frizzell on Marcos Kremer that drew a furious reaction from Matera. After grappling with Frizzell, and being admonished by Aussie referee Angus Gardiner, the Argentine captain came up with the perfect riposte. He said: “I can’t see a guy hit the face of one of my men. It’s not respect. I’m playing for my country.”
Soon afterwards an attempt by Dane Coles to slap No.8 Rodrigo Bruni backfired, and as the penalty count mounted the Pumas fly-half, Nicolás Sánchez, filled his boots, scoring a try and kicking the rest of his team’s points.
The reaction in the Kiwi media, and social media, to a second defeat in a row was savagely critical – as usual. That’s why Cane, as a 70-cap All Black, should have known that the best thing to do was to let the storm blow itself out, and concentrate on fixing the indiscipline in his own ranks.
Cane took the ill-advised alternative of going on the offensive in a TV interview by blasting New Zealand supporters. He said: “I think we have got amazing fans, but we have also got some pretty brutal ones. With that, you just have to remind yourself that, hey, they might like to think they know a lot about the game of rugby… but really they don’t.”
He added: “They may know the game from what they see in the 80 minutes, but they do not see a lot of the stuff that goes on behind the scenes.” Well, they are not invited behind the scenes, so cannot be blamed for forming their opinions on what is in front of them.
One of the golden rules in professional sport is not to get in a tangle with your fans. They are contributing to player wage packets by paying for match tickets, or through TV subscriptions, or by supporting clubs and buying merchandise, and they have every right to their views.
Cane also inadvertently highlighted the dangers of players reading too much into All Black fans venting their frustrations online, when he commented: “For us as a team it certainly does not help if we are spending our time online reading, hateful, disrespectful comments.”
The remedy is, of course, not to spend your time trawling through it.
Lastly, the All Black captain said that life on the road was tough when you play five internationals in six weeks. He observed, “We certainly can’t underestimate the toll it takes on some young guys being away from home, and we have got a lot of young dads.”
It is hard to imagine Cane’s squad getting too much sympathy from the New Zealand public as companies cut workforces due to the recession caused by the pandemic, or getting any more than a dismayed shake of the head from his antecedents as All Black captain.
Cane should also spare a thought for the Argentines, some of whom are also young dads. Their country has been hit much harder by Covid than New Zealand.
Not only did the Pumas coach, Mario Ledesma, contract Covid in September, so did 15 more coaching staff and players.
Their players were forced to self-isolate for weeks on end, and two months before the game against New Zealand training was non-existent.
An invitation to hold a training camp in Uruguay allowed the Argentines to start contact drills for the first time at the end of September, before self-isolating for a further fortnight when they arrived in Australia in early October.
When a second group of 13 European-based Pumas arrived a couple of weeks later, they also had to self-isolate separately before the squad could eventually come together to prepare for the All Blacks.
That’s what you call dedication to the cause – and the Argentines richly deserved their reward.