Casey Laulala makes a welcome return to the Crusaders midfield for their crunch match with Sharks in Christchurch on Friday night while coach Robbie Deans has handed a starting debut to lively loose forward Nasi Manu.
Duncan Johnstone writes for RugbyHeaven NZ that Laulala, with a head knock, was a late withdrawal from the Crusaders last week and it was noticeable that their midfield was under constant attack from the Blues with Anthony Tuitavake regularly ripping past Caleb Ralph.
Ralph is moved to the bench with Laulala coming through training and impact testing well enough to win back his No 13 jersey for this clash with the third-placed Sharks.
Manu gets his first Super 14 start as he comes on to the back of the scrum for the well-performed Mose Tuiali’i who has been niggled by a lower back complaint.
Tuiali’i got a late reprieve when he passed a fitness test on Wednesday to gain a place oin the reserves after George Whitelock was orginally named there.
“We’d named George Whitelock on the bench, but it was always with the proviso that if Mose proved his fitness, we would be bringing him back into the match day squad,” Crusaders coach Robbie Deans explained on the team’s website.
“That’s essentially what has happened. Mose trained today with no problems so we are going to get him back into it.”
But the Crusaders have huge faith in the 19-year-old Manu who they regard as a real star of the future. The versatile loosie has been in their match day 22s every week since being introduced against the Bulls way back in round two.
With 10 appearances off the bench now, Deans has confidence that Manu can handle the starting job against a Sharks side desperate to stop the rot after losing their last two matches in Australia.
“There’s no doubt. You only have to watch the footage of last week where he more than held his own against a quality opposing loose trio to see that,” said Deans of Manu’s early replacement for Tuiali’i against the Blues.
The Sharks have never won in seven matches in Christchurch, including a 1998 semifinal. But Deans believes the desperate race for the playoffs will add to the South Africans’ determination to halt their slide after losing to the Brumbies and Waratahs in the last two rounds.
“They’ll be hungry and they’ll be determined. While the last two weeks haven’t gone as well as they will have hoped, they’d been unbeaten in nine before that so they’d built up a lot of confidence,” said Deans.
“This is the last game of their tour and they’ll throw everything they have at us out on the track. We’d certainly be that way if we were in their position.”
Deans, as usual, isn’t getting carried away with all the talk about his side being a shoe-in for a home semifinal now that they enjoy a seven-point lead in the championship with three rounds left.
“Those who look ahead are those who don’t have any accountability out on the track,” he said, emphasising that the Crusaders’ proud record of six titles had been built around a philosophy of living in the present rather than the future.
“This competition has always been a week-to-week proposition, and nothing’s changed. It is only about the next opponent, and that’s our sole focus. In that context, the points table has no relevance for either ourselves or the Sharks. Where we sit on the points table is not going to help either of us once the game kicks off on Friday night.”
The Sharks, who have already lost influential playmaker Frederic Michalak for the rest of the tournament with a knee injury, have other problems as they get set to name their team to tackle the Crusaders.
Springboks hooker Bismarck du Plessis is still troubled by a bruised sternum from the 25-10 loss to the Waratahs and is rated doubtful to play in Christchurch.
Brad Barritt (shoulder), Frans Steyn (bruised thigh), Ruan Pienaar (cut above the eye) and Albert van den Berg (bruised thigh) are also waiting for clearances to meet the Crusaders.
CRUSADERS: 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Andrew Ellis; 8 Nasi Manu, 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 Mose Tuiali’i, 20 Kahn Fotuali’i, 21 Hamish Gard, 22 Caleb RalphTweet