In a double-boost to the Crusaders ahead of Friday night’s crucial Super 14 match against the Blues, Leon MacDonald returns at fullback and in-form centre Casey Laulala is named in the No 13 jersey subject to a late fitness test.
Marc Hinton of RugbyHeaven NZ reports that it is a clear message that there is no panic in the Crusaders ranks despite suffering their first defeat of the campaign last weekend in Hamilton, coach Robbie Deans has made just two changes to his starting lineup to face the Blues in what should be an Anzac Day spectacular in Christchurch.
MacDonald returns at fullback after a spell away with a torn thigh muscle and his assured presence and high-impact game from deep will be greatly welcomed by a Crusaders outfit that was off its attacking game last round in the 5-18 loss to the Chiefs.
MacDonald’s comeback means the reliable Scott Hamilton drops to the bench in what may be considered a surprise call by Deans.
Many were predicting Hamilton would move back to the wing once MacDonald was fit again, but Deans has instead chosen to recall Kade Poki to the right wing spot, has moved fellow rookie Sean Maitland to the left and omitted the veteran Caleb Ralph from the match 22 altogether.
Laulala, who was doubtful for the match after suffering a bad head clash with Dwayne Sweeney late in the Chiefs clash, has also been named to start but will first have to undergo fitness and impact tests on the game’s eve.
The Crusaders pack remains unchanged from that which was generally bested by the Chiefs last weekend. Collectively they will regard Friday’s match at AMI Stadium as a big chance for atonement.
MacDonald was now back to full fitness after struggling with the thigh injury. “We’ve had to manage Leon’s situation but he’s trained really well these last few days, and come through with flying colours,” Deans said on the Crusaders website.
Deans described the wing changes as “performance-related”, and said they were a tribute to the development youngsters Poki and Maitland had made in their rookie campaigns. Poki has also been forgiven after he had been suspended for a match for missing a training session.
“One of the great attributes Kade and Sean have shown this year has been their positivity,” said Deans.
“The key thing is that they backed themselves on the field. That’s exactly the attitude we’ll be looking for them to bring to the occasion on Friday night.”
Deans said Laulala had already come through one impact test on Wednesday but would be further assessed before and during Thursday’s Captain’s Run hitout.
The in-form centre came through a good “physical involvement” in Wednesday’s training which included a significant level of contact work. “He’s shown no symptoms from the knock he took at the weekend since the run, but we will do a further impact test in the morning, as well as monitoring him closely through tomorrow’s run just to be sure,” added Deans.
Deans also said the end of the eight-game winning streak for 2008 had been dealt with but that the outlook in the squad remained positive. And so it should, with the Crusaders still holding a seven-point lead at the top of the table.
We can’t change the outcome in Hamilton,” said Deans. “All we can control is how we react to that experience, and how we respond. That was the theme to come out of our debrief, and will be the key indicator for us as a team this week.”
Deans was also keen to caution against anyone writing off the Blues on the strength of back-to-back poor performances prior to their bye last weekend.
“Their circumstance is very similar to the position the Chiefs were in last week,” Deans noted. “Potentially their season rests on it, and we all saw last weekend across a number of matches, including our own, how much of a motivating factor that can be for a team.
“They will come down here operating at full noise, as the Chiefs were last week.”
The Blues might also take some solace in the record book which shows them as the only side in the history of Super rugby to hold a winning edge over the Crusaders. The Auckland franchise has won eight of 14 matches against the six-time competition champions.
The Blues’ record in Christchurch is also not too shabby. They have won three of six matches in the Garden City, which is also an unparallelled effort.
CRUSADERS: 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Andrew Ellis; 8 Mose Tuiali’i, 7 Richard McCaw (c), 6 Kieran Read, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Greg Somerville, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Ben Franks.
Reserves: 16 Ti’i Paulo, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ross Filipo, 19 Nasi Manu, 20 Kahn Fotuali’i, 21 Hamish Gard, 22 Scott Hamilton.