All Blacks flank Sam Cane never doubted he’d rebuild his broken body to take his shot at history this year, writes MARC HINTON.
When doctors in Pretoria informed Sam Cane he’d suffered a fracture of his neck in the Rugby Championship clash with the Springboks last October, his first thought wasn’t how dreadfully unlucky he’d been. Far from it. Just hours after the game the All Blacks loose forward had a healthy awareness that he’d dodged the figurative bullet with his freak injury.
Not once did Cane believe his rugby career was over. Not once did he confront the chilling thought that he might never walk again. Not once did the darkness descend as he contemplated the rugby injury no one wants to hear they’ve suffered.
‘Rugby went away from my mind real quick when they came out and told me post-scan that I’d broken my neck,’ reflected Cane at the end of his remarkable return to rugby in the latter stages of the Chiefs’ Super Rugby 2019 season. ‘That was a little bit scary to hear. At the same time I could feel my fingers, my toes and everything, and I never had a really scary moment where I was dealing with paralysis.
‘I knew that once I was in professionals’ care I was unlikely to go backwards from where I was. I can’t speak highly enough of the care I had in Pretoria. They were reassuring, there was good communication and they said pretty early on that I’d probably make a full recovery.’
Now, as Cane counts down to the looming World Cup – and his tilt at three-peat history with the All Blacks – fully recovered from that fateful moment in Pretoria, putting his body on the line for his country once again, he does so with a sound appreciation for how close he came to something a whole lot more serious.
‘As bad as the injury was … in a funny way I felt pretty lucky because it could have been a lot worse,’ he says of the collision with Springbok loose forward Francois Louw in the 35th minute of the All Blacks’ 2018 victory at Loftus Versfeld. ‘I was only a couple of millimetres away from never playing again so I was grateful I was going to be OK; one, I was going to be able to live a healthy, normal life and two, I would get back to playing rugby again.’
And at that stage ‘one’ was definitely more important than ‘two’. ‘The worst-case scenario was that it didn’t heal properly and would require surgery again. I was aware of the worst-case scenario early, but to me it still wasn’t as bad as what it could have been.’
Cane, who captained the All Blacks for their season-opening Test against Argentina in Buenos Aires in July, reflects on the road back to rugby which ended with his appearance off the bench for the Chiefs against the Blues at Eden Park on 18 May. He describes a slow, deliberate process once he had the surgery in Johannesburg (with fiancee Harriet Allen and mum Kathy by his side) to stabilise the fractured vertebra in his neck.
‘It’s been about ticking boxes, but with a lot bigger distance between each box. The toughest time was probably the first 24 hours. I was in a lot of pain and was hanging out to get into surgery and start feeling good again.
‘Then getting home and having a brace on for three months was challenging. But it was easy to put things in perspective because of the nature of the injury. I know it could have been so much worse. To have the light at the end of the tunnel, to be walking around and doing most things I wanted to, and to know I could get back to playing rugby again, was just a bonus. Putting it in perspective made everything a lot easier.’
Cane, who picked up his 61st Test cap against Argentina, says facing his rugby mortality square in the face lent a realisation that this sport wasn’t all he had in his life. ‘Sometimes, it’s not until you go through something like this that it hits home. I’ve got enough other stuff going on in my life that rugby is not the be-all and end-all.’
And, in a strange way, that’s allowed Cane to treasure his return to the rugby field even more, which came at the end of a most unusual rehab. ‘It was four months of no exercise whatsoever,’ he says. ‘It was the longest I’ve gone without exercising pretty much my whole life. The first time back in the gym I was ridiculously weak. But I made improvements quickly, and started to enjoy going for runs and getting my fitness back.’
Soon enough – quicker than he thought possible – Cane got himself back in good shape, which then allowed him to plan a return to the rugby field. Not once did he consider that his neck might not stand the strain or that he could somehow suffer a repeat episode.
‘In a funny way my neck should actually be stronger,’ adds Cane, who believes his years of weight training prevented the injury being worse than it might have been. ‘I’ve got two vertebrae fused together with a bit of metal wrapped around them. I don’t allow myself to overthink the situation. It was a freak accident and the chances of it happening again are so, so small.’
A fortuitous thing happened while Cane was out of action: Ardie Savea emerged as a brilliant No 7 in his own right, filling the void left by Cane at the All Blacks and playing so well in Super Rugby for the Hurricanes that it became crystal clear coach Steve Hansen now had two world-class options for the position.
‘Three or four years ago I probably would have looked at it like, “Oh man, that sucks,”’ reflects Cane now, with a wide smile. ‘But this year he’s been impressive to watch and he’s certainly been leading the way. For me it’s about embracing that challenge. I will have to play better than I was before just to compete. It’s just another challenge.’
The workhorse loose forward said he felt ‘hugely privileged’ to lead the All Blacks in their first Test of 2019 in Kieran Read’s absence (alongside Savea, who moved to No 8) and remains highly motivated to do whatever is required from him to be part of that World Cup campaign in Japan where the All Blacks will chase a third consecutive title.
‘Everyone wants to get selected and everyone wants to start, and that’s where I’m at. Any chance I can get to play in the All Blacks jersey is an opportunity to put my hand up. Knowing myself and the type of guy Ardie is, we’ll do what’s best for the team, and at the end of the day if we’re both out there and we go well, that’s all good.’
From where Cane has come, he’s learned to savour each and every moment he gets in that black jersey from here on in.
– This article first appeared in the September 2019 edition of SA Rugby magazine