There are four personnel changes, and seven positional alterations, in the Crusaders side which has been named today for Friday night’s keenly-anticipated Rebel Sport Super 14 match against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
The CRFU reports that Richard McCaw, Ross Filipo, Kade Poki and Kahn Fotuali’i have all been reintroduced to the squad after missing last week’s 31-6 win over the Lions. They take the places of George Whitelock, Michael Paterson, Reuben Thorne and Steve Alfeld respectively.
Fullback Leon MacDonald has been allowed another week to recover from the thigh muscle tear he sustained against the Hurricanes on March 28.
In his absence, Scott Hamilton will again start from fullback, with the only change to the back division from last weekend coming at first-five-eighths where Stephen Brett returns in the place of Hamish Gard.
Brett played 10 minutes off the bench at fullback against the Lions. That outing, and his subsequent work at training, has fully satisfied the coaching and medical staff that he has totally recovered from the AC (shoulder) joint injury he sustained against the Cheetahs on March 15.
The Tokoroa-raised Sean Maitland has held out the challenge of the now available again Kade Poki, to retain his position starting on the wing.
McCaw will once again captain the side. He is one of five changes in the forwards, from the eight which started in the last match.
McCaw and fellow flanker Kieran Read, lock Brad Thorn, hooker Corey Flynn and prop Ben Franks, are all back, with hooker Ti’i Paulo and prop Wyatt Crockett moving back to the run on reserves bench, after starting against the Lions.
Filipo also makes his return, being named on the bench after featuring for his Petone club in each of the last two weekends.
The 2007 All Black lock will be making his debut on the 13th Crusade, after being forced to undergo surgery on a neck injury which troubled him during the pre-season. His last full representative appearance was for Wellington against Manawatu on August 11 last year.
“It’s been a while, and Ross has had to be patient, but he’s ready to go and we need to get him started,” Crusaders coach Robbie Deans says.
While there are just four new faces from the unit which registered the Crusaders’ eighth consecutive win in the last round, the circumstance that prevailed in that match did allow Deans to withdraw a number of his most heavily worked players from the field early.
Others, who had their ‘loads’ lightened by being named on the bench, were also able to be used sparingly.
“The aim was to find the best balance, both in terms of the needs of the team for that particular game, as well as the needs of the individuals, and we’re pretty happy with where we got to,” Deans says.
“We were able to share the work load around, which has allowed some to freshen up a little bit, while also getting the outcome from that match that we needed.”
In that regard, Deans made a point of recognising the contribution of the players who will not be directly involved on Friday night.
“The young guys that got an opportunity last weekend delivered in a big way,” he says.
“They can be proud of what they achieved, and how they have added to the team.”
Poki and halfback Kahn Fotuali’i, who were both stood down from last week’s selection due to a breach of the team’s internal protocols, are now available again and have been included. The process regarding the pair’s protocol breach was completed yesterday after a meeting with the NZRU which has cleared the way for the players to return to full duty with the Crusaders.
The Chiefs return from their bye for this match having scored 18 tries (six per game) in winning their last three matches.
Deans acknowledged that playing them away from home represented a major challenge.
“They have some dangerous strike players and the ability to score tries from anywhere on the park, especially from turnover, so concentration, discipline and accuracy is going to be vital,” he says.
“They’re confident, they’re playing well and they’ll have a big crowd behind them. It will be critical that we match the level of enthusiasm they bring to the contest.”
Currently eighth on the Rebel Sport Super 14 standings, the Chiefs are just three log points outside of the semi-final qualifying positions, but face a demanding finishing schedule with a three-game overseas tour following their final two home fixtures.
As such, the significance of the Crusaders’ visit has not been lost on the home fans, with Chiefs officials expecting a sell out crowd of 25,000.
Last year, the Chiefs ended a 26-match unbeaten home sequence by the Crusaders when they snatched a 30-24 victory at what is now AMI Stadium.
While that win represented the Chiefs’ first in Christchurch, the Crusaders have never had it easy in matches against the Chiefs.
Last year’s success might have been just the Chiefs’ third from the 12 matches played in this rivalry to date, but the record from games in Chiefs’ territory is much tighter – with the Crusaders having won four, and lost two.
Five of the six previous matches the Crusaders have played against the Chiefs away from home have been determined by the margin of a converted try or less. This includes the 1996 match (lost 26-27) which was the first competition match the Crusaders played. Current Chiefs coach Ian Foster appeared for the victors on that occasion.
Ironically the Crusaders biggest away win against the Chiefs – 36-15 – was secured during the only season thus far in which the NorthIsland franchise has qualified for the Super rugby semi-finals, 2004.
The Crusaders team to play the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton on Friday April 18, is:
15. Scott Hamilton, 14. Sean Maitland, 13. Casey Laulala, 12. Tim Bateman, 11. Caleb Ralph, 10. Stephen Brett, 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. Ross Filipo, 19. Nasi Manu, 20. Kahn Fotuali’i, 21. Hamish Gard, 22. Kade Poki.