All Black Leon MacDonald is back at fullback in the only change to the Crusaders Starting XV that has been named today for Friday night’s visit to the Hurricanes.
The CRFU reports that the 30-year-old’s return for the week seven Rebel Sport Super 14 tie sees Caleb Ralph drop to the run on substitutes’ bench in the place of midfield back Hamish Gard. Scott Hamilton returns to the left wing after deputising at fullback last week, while Kade Poki resumes on the right.
Otherwise the Crusaders line-up is unchanged from the match-day squad which dispensed with the NSW Waratahs 34-7 at AMI Stadium last Friday night in recording its sixth win of the 2008 competition.
The list released today is exactly the same as was originally named for the Waratahs’ fixture, prior to MacDonald being allowed to withdraw to freshen up.
“Leon was nursing a couple of bumps. Common sense demanded that we didn’t risk him,” Crusaders coach Robbie Deans says.
“He’s had a couple of days to freshen up now though, and has run strongly at training this week, so he’s ready to go again. The break he’s been able to have now will be good for him in the long run.”
The Crusaders venture to Wellington’s Westpac Stadium on the back of an unbeaten start to the championship, which has them eight competition points clear of the field. THe side has scored the most tries in the championship with 30, and has the best defensive record, having conceded just seven from six games.
This represents a top start to the competition but while the teams’ bye follows Friday night’s game, Deans insists the break will not be a distraction as the Crusaders bid to finish off this section of the competition in style.
“We’ve got momentum and that’s important, but it’s a weekly thing. You’ve got to live in the now and we’ll be working hard to make sure we do that,” he says.
This weekend represents the Crusaders’ first encounter with a fellow New Zealand side during the championship.
The subtle change in playing style between the three competing nations is one of the significant variables the Super 14 presents.
It does offer a demanding challenge, as was evidenced by the difficulties the Crusaders experienced earlier this month adapting to the Australian way – as applied by the Western Force – after having previously played two matches in South Africa.
“It’s a factor, no doubt,” Deans acknowledged.
“The South Africans play direct, the Australians tend to apply more width, and the New Zealand teams are somewhere in between. This is especially the case of the Hurricanes, who generally offer a good mix of both.”
The Hurricanes have been the competition’s quiet achiever to date, wracking up consecutive wins over the Queensland Reds, the Chiefs, the Highlanders and the ACT Brumbies since their opening round loss to the NSW Waratahs in Sydney.
Colin Cooper’s side was especially impressive when inflicting a record home defeat on the Brumbies at Canberra in its most recent outing – a performance that did not go un-noticed in Christchurch.
“They [the Hurricanes] have been playing well. They’ve won four straight themselves which is not easy to do in this competition, and are coming off a bye, so they’ll be fresh and keen, and have a couple of influential players coming back to them,” Deans says.
“It’s going to be a major challenge – the toughest we’ve had to date. There’s no doubt about that.”
The Hurricanes will definitely not lack for motivation.
Aside from the lure of a fifth consecutive win, the ‘Canes will also be only too aware that they have been stopped by the Crusaders in three of the biggest games of the franchise’s history to date – the semi-finals of 2003 and 2005, and the fog-bound Rebel Sport 2006 Super 14 final.
While the Hurricanes have made the playoffs three times since Cooper, the former Crusaders assistant-coach, took over at the helm in 2003; his old team has been his biggest nemesis: the Hurricanes have won just one from eight against the Crusaders during his term in charge.
From all of the matches that the two teams have played since the foundation meeting in 1996, the Crusaders have won 11 and the Hurricanes just three (most recent: 37-20 at Wellington in 2004), while the 1999 game was drawn 18-18.
On the flip side, Wellington has eliminated Canterbury during the knock out phases of the last two domestic Air New Zealand Cup competitions, while the scoreboard stands at two matches apiece in games between the Crusaders and the Hurricanes since the capital city’s inner-city venue opened for business in 2000.
The Crusaders team to play the Hurricanes at Westpac Stadium, Wellington on Friday March 28,
Starting XV: 15. Leon MacDonald, 14. Scott Hamilton, 13. Casey Laulala, 12. Tim Bateman, 11. Kade Poki, 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.
Run on reserves: 16. Ti’i Paulo, 17. Wyatt Crockett, 18. Michael Paterson, 19. Nasi Manu, 20. Kahn Fotuali’i, 21. Caleb Ralph, 22. Sean Maitland.