All Blacks Rugby: Ranking the Candidates to Replace Richie McCaw
For the past decade, Richie McCaw has been the kingpin of the All Blacks, the jewel in the crown of the world's best team. So often he has bailed them out in tight situations, with his intelligence, physicality and work rate unmatched by any other player in the game today.
Having chosen to take a sabbatical during the start of 2013, McCaw is unavailable for the All Blacks' upcoming test series against France. He will no doubt be a huge loss. But he cannot stay young forever, and this window will act as a good opportunity to blood a new player to fill the All Blacks No. 7 in the post-McCaw era.
This list looks at five of the most likely contenders to fill the jersey for the impending series in June.
5. John Hardie
John Hardie would certainly be a bolter if he was chosen, but that has not stopped some people from throwing his name into the mix as a dark horse. A hard worker who never stops tackling and an intelligent player who possesses a good linking game out wide, Hardie has caught the eye over the past few years as a player on the up.
He has been somewhat hampered this year, playing in a struggling Highlanders team and outside a tight five that has struggled to gain any dominance up front. Any open-side flanker will struggle in these circumstances, as it limits the amount of influence they can have in the loose and are forced to be more industrious in the tight. The fact that he has consistently stood out as one of the top performers in this pack perhaps shows how good he has been.
4. Tanerau Latimer
Despite struggling to get a start for the Chiefs, Tanerau Latimer still remains very much in the All Blacks' selection frame. Originally used as McCaw's backup in the All Blacks in 2009 and 2010, Latimer has matches for New Zealand to his name, including five tests.
Since this time he has changed his game, becoming a far more physical player than he was in his time with the team. He can carry the ball and is strong at the breakdown too, making him more than a one-dimensional player.
Perhaps a long shot, but certainly a contender and not one to write off just yet.
3. Matt Todd
Two years ago, Matt Todd was the next big thing, the player who was going to take over for Richie McCaw after an outstanding NPC and a strong Super 15. Indeed, he was even called in to train with the All Blacks at Rugby World Cup 2011 after injuries left the side depleted.
How times have changed. Todd now finds himself down the list of contenders, perhaps partially because of a fall-off in form, but also because of the emergence of some other young prospects.
Todd is as much of a tackler as any player on this list, getting through plenty of work on defence. He possesses a good linking game, too and has the ball skills to make use of the offload to put players into gaps.
His form in 2013 has been better than that of 2012, and he certainly will remain in contention for the ever-elusive All Black jersey.
2. Luke Braid
Luke Braid has come on leaps and bounds this year, leading from the front and proving to be one of the shining lights in the Blues pack in 2013. He is a warrior in every sense of the word, fighting hard with ball in hand and throwing himself into contact.
On defence he works hard, too, perhaps not making as many tackles as the others but making more impact when he does and reading the game well. He also offers leadership to the team, having captained the Blues at different stages over the past two years.
If two open-side flankers are chosen, it would be fair to say Braid would be unlucky not to be one of them. However, if only one is chosen, he may end up one of the most unlucky men in New Zealand. Certainly he is one to watch and has all the makings of being an All Black at some stage in his career.
1. Sam Cane
Sam Cane seems the most likely to fill the position. He may be young, but having been used successfully last season, it is hard to see the selectors changing their minds on such a promising talent.
Cane is an outstanding defensive player, getting involved and making plenty of tackles. Some questioned his size and physicality when brought into the side for last year's June tests, but he proved that he was capable of matching it with the best of them, and this should no longer be a problem.
He also brings a very good linking game, particularly when ranging wide, as he displayed in the third test against Ireland in 2013.
At just 21 years old, Cane has a lot in front of him. Should he get the nod to start the June tests this year, he will have an opportunity to cement himself as the No. 1 contender to fill the No. 7 All Black jersey in the post-McCaw era.