The return of halfback Andrew Ellis to the starting line-up, and the placement of Reuben Thorne, Hamish Gard and Caleb Ralph among the run on substitutes, represent the four changes to the Crusaders side that will tackle the Bulls on Friday night in the Rebel Sport Super 14.
The CRFU reports that Ellis comes in for Kahn Fotuali’i, who drops to the bench, while Thorne, Gard and Ralph have replaced Michael Paterson, Tim Bateman and Sean Maitland respectively; for the much anticipated match up against the defending champions at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.
Ellis featured off the bench during the opening round 34-3 win over the ACT Brumbies, having made a rapid rehabilitation after sustaining an ankle injury during the pre-season fixture against the Hurricanes at Motueka last month.
Thorne’s selection represents the culmination of a process to overcome a calf strain which marred his pre-season preparation, while Ralph’s greater experience has seen him leap-frog the younger Maitland after he was omitted from last week’s side.
Today’s selection means that the Crusaders squad contains four players who have appeared on over 100 occasions for the franchise.
On the other side of the ledger, Gard and young loose forward Nasi Manu will both be making their Super 14 debuts if they are involved.
“We were happy with what was achieved against the Brumbies and our selection for this weekend reflects that,” Crusaders coach Robbie Deans said.
“Obviously Friday night is going to be a huge occasion so we are looking to utilize all of our experience to deal with that. The changes we’ve made certainly don’t represent any dis-satisfaction at all with what the players who’ve missed out for this game contributed against the Brumbies.”
Deans says he and assistant-coach Mark Hammett are pleased with the way the team has settled into its Centurion base, on the out-skirts of Pretoria, after arriving in South Africa on Sunday afternoon.
“We’ve had a couple of good hit-outs since we’ve been here, and the players have travelled well,” he said.
“The travel side of the competition can be a bit of a juggling act at times, especially around the South African leg, but we feel – at this stage anyway – that we’ve handled it about as well as we can.”
The statistics highlight just how demanding an assignment the South African leg of the competition can be.
Last year, the Crusaders’ 49-28 win over the Cheetahs at Bloemfontein in round four was the only success achieved by a New Zealand side in South Africa across 14 matches.
For all of the Crusaders’ excellence across the Super rugby era, the side has not completed an unbeaten South African tour since 2002, when it went through the entire competition undefeated.
“It’s a tough place to play, but a great challenge. We’re all really looking forward to Friday night,” Deans said.
Nor will last year’s semi-final defeat against the same opponent – which represented the first time in nine semi-final appearances that the Crusaders had lost – play any part in the team’s preparations for the upcoming match.
“We haven’t even mentioned it, and we won’t be,” Deans says.
“The Bulls have moved on, and so have we. They are a different team this year with a few new faces, and our combination has some new players in it as well. Perhaps the only relevance last year, both for South African rugby as a whole and the Bulls in particular, is in terms of offering them additional belief no matter who they’re playing against.”
Incredibly, given the Crusaders’ legacy of consistent selection throughout the Super rugby era, just seven of the players who featured in the starting XV for the second round tie also started against the Bulls nine months ago during the 12-27 semi-final loss at the same venue.
The seven survivors are Leon MacDonald, Casey Laulala, Daniel Carter, Mose Tuiali’i, skipper Richard McCaw, Corey Flynn and Ben Franks.
Of more relevance, Deans says, is the Bulls performance in beating a fired up Stormers side 16-9 at Cape Town during last weekend’s opening round, where they came from 0-9 down shortly before halftime in front of a partisan crowd to claim the honours.
“It was a good effort,” Deans noted, “and showed their strong desire to retain their champion status.”
The Crusaders side to play the Bulls in the Rebel Sport Super 14 match at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on Friday February 22 (kick off 8pm, local) is:
Starting XV: 15. Leon MacDonald, 14. Kade Poki, 13. Casey Laulala, 12. Stephen Brett, 11. Scott Hamilton, 10. Daniel Carter, 9. Andrew Ellis, 8. Mose Tuiali’i, 7. Richard McCaw (captain), 6. Kieran Read, 5. Ali Williams, 4. Brad Thorn, 3. Greg Somerville, 2. Corey Flynn, 1. Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16. Ti’i Paulo, 17. Wyatt Crockett, 18. Reuben Thorne, 19, Nasi Manu, 20. Kahn Fotuali’i, 21. Hamish Gard, 22. Caleb Ralph.Tweet