‘Take their arm off’: Heartland side excited to have All Blacks captain

It’s a rare throwback to the good old days of amateur rugby.

Photo: PHOTOSPORT

On Saturday afternoon in Taupo, All Blacks captain Sam Cane would team up with fencers, farmers and foresty workers when he turned out for the King Country provincial side.

With his regular provincial side Bay of Plenty on a bye week, Cane was looking for a team who could take him as he returned from a long injury layoff and prepared to make his return to the intenational arena.

The team known in rugby circles as ‘The Rams’ were only too happy to help.

But King Country Rugby general manager Kurt McQuilkin admitted both he and coach Craig Jeffries could hardly believe their luck when the latter phoned the former with the news late last week.

“Craig called and said ‘you’re not going to believe this but we’ve been offered Sam Cane’s services for our match against Whanganui next weekend, what do I tell them’.

“I said ‘take their arm off’.”

McQuilkin’s eagerness was understandable.

And not just because King Country sit bottom of the Heartland Championship standings after starting the season with three straight losses.

It’s not everyday the All Black captain played in what was effectively the third tier of the New Zealand rugby pyramid.

Which was exactly why Cane’s All Blacks team-mate Dane Coles thought it was a good idea.

“I’ve been trying to play for Horowhenua for a long time but unfortunately it [hasn’t happened].

“But [Sam and I] have been keeping in touch and I said to him, ‘why don’t you play Heartland’.

“He was like ‘oh yeah, that’s a good idea’ and next thing he’s playing for the King Country Rams.

“It’s an awesome thing for an All Blacks captain to go back and play grassroots. It’s a big part of New Zealand Rugby and a big part of our DNA.

“I’m just a bit jealous he gets to do that and I’m sure the Butcher Boys will be ripping into him.”

The ‘Butcher Boys’ are Whanganui, who King Country hosted on Saturday afternoon in Taupo – just half-an-hour down the road from where Cane grew up, in the small central North Island town of Reporoa.

King Country coach Craig Jeffries said the All Blacks skipper was relishing his grassroots return.

“He’s genuinely excited.

“Obviously coming back from injury would create excitement for any rugby player but there also seems to be genuine excitement about the idea of being involved with the King Country Rams.

“That was bloody nice to hear in his voice.”

Jeffries said, in a region home to one of the great All Blacks captains – the late Sir Colin Meads, the news about Cane spread quickly.

“It’s created a whole level of excitement we haven’t seen for a wee while [here].

“I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls from members of he public who have heard and they want to get in there and be a part of it.”

But not everyone was so delighted.

Whanganui coach Jason Caskey said it wasn’t not ideal the All Blacks captain’s one-off appearance would come against his team.

“It’s a great thing for Heartland rugby to have a player like that playing.

“It’d be disappointing, though, from our point of view if you end up missing the final at the end of the year [because of] one game.

“If it was three or four games you’d probably think it was a far enough thing, but when it’s a one-off, one game it can have quite a big influence on the competition.”

King Country's James Hemara is tackled in the Lochore Cup final against North Otago at Rugby Park, Te Kuiti, New Zealand. Saturday 24 October, 2015. Copyright photo: John Cowpland / www.photosport.nz

King Country playing in the 2015 Lochore Cup final in Te Kuiti.
Photo: Photosport

While the Whanganui players were excited to go up against Cane, Caskey said that clearly went both ways.

“He is All Blacks captain after all, and you don’t get too many players of that quality playing in the competition.

“He’ll be a massive lift for King Country, I’ve got no doubt about it. Even just the motivational lift of him being there will be massive.”

The good news for the visitors was they wouldn’t also have to contend with a big home crowd.

With the Taupo region still under Covid level two restrictions, the only people in attendance to witness Cane’s return would be a small group of sponsors and selected family and friends of both teams.

Kurt McQuilkin was certain it would have been “chocka” at Owen Delany Park, judging by the calls that had come into the union this week.

“Oh gee, we’ve had all sorts of requests. People have offered their services for security and all kinds of things.

“It’s been a pretty big response since [Cane’s] name popped up.”

Big crowd or not, though, McQuilkin said the King Country contingent would do their best to make the most of their time with the All Blacks skipper.

“We’ll try and have a few beers with him afterwards under the stand and present him with his King Country tie for his first first-class match for us.

“He’ll be forever in our King Country Rams family, which is cool.”

Cane was set to start the game, and was expected to play at least 40 minutes.

The match was scheduled to kick-off at 2.30pm.

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