Sam Cane growing into the All Blacks No 7 jersey
They grow up so quick. Was it only a year ago that a fresh-faced Sam Cane was taking his baby steps in test rugby, and trying to figure out how he was going to keep up with the big kids?
Now the 21-year-old All Black has turned that stagger into a swagger and nigh on achieved the impossible - made us believe that there might just be life after the great Richie McCaw after all.
It's still early days in the career of this young man from Reporoa, in rural Bay of Plenty, but the signs are positive to say the least. This time last year he'd started just one test and had yet to prove he could play in the big boys' sandpit.
Fast forward 12 months and he's started six of the All Blacks' 10 tests this year, jumped through some significant hoops and has started to deliver on all the promise that Steve Hansen saw in him.
It's a position fast becoming, well, luxurious. Wellington's Ardie Savea has special written all over him and the consistent Matt Todd (out injured for this tour) has played his way back into the national mix. Considering McCaw is intent on hanging round another couple of years, Hansen now has options, to say the least.
This week in Tokyo, Cane gets to enjoy a rare international alongside the 120-test McCaw. With the skipper missing the first three tests of the year on extended leave and finding the remainder a challenge his ageing body has been reluctant to face, the black No 7 jersey has graced a different set of shoulders for most of this perfect campaign.
That's seen Hansen forced to go to plan B and run with McCaw at No 8, as well as Dan Carter, in Tokyo, to at least give the veteran duo a chance of getting up to speed for the challenges of France, England and Ireland that loom.
It says a lot about Cane's growth in these past 12 months that he's now no longer content to be understudy to the Big Dog. The kid has had a taste of it, and wants more.
"I'd like to start a couple of test matches on tour, but that just depends on a few different things," says Cane when asked about his goals for this expedition. "I know my situation is behind the skipper and a lot depends on how he pulls through. But I'm genuinely looking to put pressure on and take every opportunity."
Yeah, the kid is sprouting. Remember when he had to start against South Africa on Eden Park, after McCaw went down with the knee in Hamilton? Ireland was one thing, but the big, bad Boks? It was a defining sort of moment.
Cane passed the test with flying colours, then did it again in La Plata. Even back in understudy mode in Jo'burg the blossoming openside came on and made a huge impact in a momentous victory.
It had reached the point that when McCaw went down again in Dunedin, just a couple of days out from the test, barely an eyebrow was raised. Cane, we now know, is able.
"I don't think I'm too much different," says Cane, when asked about his big year. "It's good for your confidence - they're called test matches because you go out there and test yourself against the best."
The kid's a quick study too. One of the most important things he's learned?
"Not to play the game during the week," he says. "There's been a lot of hype about and you can get a bit sucked into that, and almost play the game before you get there. You've got to make sure you're relaxed enough during the week to do everything you need to give yourself the best chance of playing well on Saturday."
So, he's growing up. But not too fast. He'd never even been to Tokyo, Paris or Dublin before, and was eager to explore new territory on this trip.
But of more interest is the history the All Blacks will make if they can tick off four more tests for professional rugby's first perfect year.
"There's big motivation, and it's creating a bit of excitement," Cane said. "We want to put performances on the paddock we're proud of, but we've just got to make sure we don't play the England or French tests before we've played Japan."
Cane believes the New Zealanders have taken their game to a new level this year.
"If you compare us to the other teams in the Rugby Championship, some of the tries we're scoring, some of the skill levels we're displaying, it's pleasing because we've been working hard at those skillsets."
The young man wants to get more physical, and more consistent. But he knows a good thing when he's in the middle of it, and feels blessed to be playing in an All Blacks side on top of their game.
"That's why you play rugby as a kid, to throw the ball round, score tries and run fast. Everything moves so quickly, sometimes you do have to stop and realise you're living your dream."
- Fairfax Media
What NZ rugby job would you give Robbie Deans?Related story: (See story)