What Sam Cane's exit means for Scott Robertson and the All Blacks

Monday's news that All Blacks captain Sam Cane would retire at the end of 2024 and hand over leadership of the team immediately, was not exactly unexpected.

With Scott Robertson having replaced Ian Foster as coach and a new Rugby World Cup cycle beginning, the All Blacks were always going to be heading in a new direction -- a process that was already underway following the exits of Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Dane Coles and Richie Mo'unga, although the playmaker may yet again be sighted in the black jersey a little further down the road.

But Cane was always going to be at long odds to reach another World Cup, his body already showing the wear and tear of a rugged Super Rugby and Test career. His decision to sign a three-year deal with Suntory, via a release from his New Zealand Rugby contract, is a prudent move for both parties.

After years playing and touring across the Pacific and around the world, Cane deserves more time with his family. And the All Blacks also need to look to the future, to bring on the next generation of back-row talent, of which there is plenty in New Zealand.

So what are some of the knock-on effects, and opportunities, resulting from Cane's decision?


Robertson was always likely to want to oversee a change in leadership at the All Blacks and you get the feeling that Cane's decision to step aside was very much made in conjunction with the new coach.

At 32, Cane is nearing the end of his rugby career full stop. The All Blacks need some regeneration and, after Richie McCaw and Kieran Read stepped away after the 2015 and 2019 World Cups respectively, Cane will soon follow suit.

Speaking on Tuesday in New Zealand, Robertson said "conversations" and "discussions with players" had taken place around a new All Blacks captain, but the coach wouldn't elaborate as to who might be the man for the job.

Robertson will unveil the team's new leader in the days that follow the Super Rugby Pacific final late next month when he names a 32-man squad for the two-Test series against England.

But it's not hard to work out who the front-runners are, namely Scott Barrett and Ardie Savea.

Given he was Crusaders captain under Robertson for four seasons, Barrett looms as the easy choice to succeed Cane. Robertson knows what he is going to get from the veteran Test lock, while the evolution of the 30-year-old's game in recent years -- he moved ahead of Whitelock as the preferred second-row partner for Brodie Retallick -- has been one of the All Blacks' big results.

Barrett has, however, found himself on the wrong side of both referees and the judiciary throughout his career, his most recent indiscretion being two yellow cards against South Africa in a World Cup warm-up in London last year. The All Blacks lock did escape suspension for those infringements, with the first of his two cards coming as a result of a team-wide warning for repeated infringements.

But Barrett has previously had trouble with his tackle technique and received a four-week ban during the 2022 Super Rugby season, while few people will forget his deliberate shoulder to the head of Wallabies captain Michael Hooper in the Perth Bledisloe Cup clash of 2019.

They are the only questions around Barrett's suitability to lead New Zealand.

If Robertson looks beyond his favoured Crusader, then Savea looms as the man most likely. The reigning World Rugby Player of the Year and three-time All Blacks Player of the Year, Savea is a little out of sight right now as he completes a six-month sabbatical with Japanese club Kobelco Kobe Steelers.

But Savea will soon return to New Zealand and will be available for selection to face England and Fiji in July. As far as "follow me" style leaders go, there would be none better than Savea, such is the handful he has proven for opposition teams over many years now. He has also already captained the All Blacks on multiple occasions when Cane has been sidelined by injury.

Savea is also 30, has had few long-term injuries, meaning there is no issue around his ability to get through to the next World Cup.

Outside of Barrett and Savea, Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu could be another option while, Beauden Barrett, who is also in Japan on sabbatical, has previously served as All Blacks vice-captain.


The veteran openside currently sits on 95 Test appearances, 27 of which he has served as All Blacks captain.

New Zealand have a whopping 14-game schedule ahead, but Robertson on Tuesday confirmed that Cane would not be considered to face England or Fiji and would instead target a return in the Rugby Championship.

That looms as Cane's best chance of joining the list of All Blacks centurions, with two games each against the Pumas, Springboks and Wallabies. Injury has, however, not been kind to Cane since the 2019 World Cup and he is currently sidelined with a back issue which has kept him out since January.

While Cane is worthy of a place among New Zealand's elite centurion group, there is also no room for sentimentality, particularly with a new breed of back-row talent emerging in New Zealand. But there has also been a leadership vacuum within the All Blacks since last year's World Cup, so Cane's 95 Tests worth of experience could also prove invaluable.

That generation-next will also make it hard for Cane to figure in New Zealand's end-of-season tour.


When Cane has been out with injury, both Savea and Blues flanker Dalton Papali'i have spent time in the No. 7 jersey. But Savea has also proven himself as a world-class No. 8 since Read's exit after the 2019 World Cup and, as previously mentioned, has been declared the best player on the planet in that position.

But there is also a new breed of talent back-row talent standing up in New Zealand, headlined by the Hurricanes Peter Lakai and Brayden Iose, who have made such an impact that the Wellington-based franchise sit second in Super Rugby Pacific despite Savea's absence.

Lakai has spent the most of his time in the No. 7 jersey and looks a real talent, while Du'Plessis Kirifi is one of the best breakdown on-ballers in the game, giving the Canes a powerful one-two punch at openside.

Elsewhere around New Zealand, Cullen Grace, Tom Cullen and All Blacks back-rower Ethan Blackadder have all had opportunities with the Crusaders, while Luke Jacobson is arguably the most versatile back-rower in the country and a wonderful bench option for Robertson moving forward.


It's certainly possible and may be necessary at some point if Robertson wants to return Hoskins Sotutu to international rugby.

The Blues No. 8 has been in spectacular form this season after he fell out of favour with Ian Foster and missed World Cup selection, the arrival of Vern Cotter in Auckland seemingly bringing out the best in the 25-year-old Sotutu.

But Sotutu's Blues teammate Dalton Papali'i has also been in tremendous form, has proven himself at Test level as an openside, and his ascension to the All Blacks No. 7 jersey on a more permanent basis would allow Savea to continue in the position where he has been declared world's best.

It is an embarrassment of back-row riches for Robertson, where his toughest decision may be exactly what blend of back-row combination he feels is best. That could of course change from week to week depending on the opposition, but there is certainly going to be some hard-luck stories when it comes to selection such is the back-row talent in New Zealand.

As for Cane, it would be a shame if his last involvement in the black jersey was a yellow card referral -- and ultimately then a red -- in a World Cup Final defeat by the Springboks.