Jared Payne returns to boost the Crusaders for their crucial clash with the Bulls in Christchurch on Friday night.
RugbyHeaven reports that Payne, the promising utility, spent virtually all of March injured with an ankle problem but is set to make a timely return as the Crusaders look to push on after two consecutive wins have reignited the defence of their crown.
Payne will get a start on the right wing providing he comes through a fitness test.
As expected Andy Ellis is out of the match and will be replaced at halfback by Khan Fotuali’i.
There are two changes to the pack from the side that beat the Stormers last week with openside flanker Geoirge Whitelock and tighthead prop Owen Franks handed starting roles.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder acknowledges that the Bulls are a big, tough team but is sure his side will give a decent account of themselves after good wins against the Waratahs in Sydney and Stormers at AMI Stadium last Saturday.
“We’re really excited about playing one of the form teams in the competition, especially at home,” he said.
“We know they have a big pack but we just have to be more efficient and smart in the things we do. If you run directly at them it plays into their hands.
“But these challenges are what rugby is all about. I’m sure the players will be up to the task on Friday night.”
Meanwhile, Springboks lock Victor Matfield finally returns from injury to captain the Bulls against the Crusaders.
A shoulder injury has sidelined him for the past month.
Matfield will join Bakkies Botha in the second row with Danie Rossouw moved to flanker in a loose trio that includes Pierre Spies and Dewald Potgieter.
Bryan Habana comes back to the left wing to replace rookie Gerhard van den Heever but the rest of the backline that played against the Highlanders was kept unchanged.
“Victor and Bryan have worked hard throughout the last four weeks to make a full recovery and they are both hungry and eager to make a huge contribution,” said Bulls coach Frans Ludeke.
CRUSADERS: 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Jared Payne, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Colin Slade, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Khan Fotuali’i, 8 Thomas Waldrom, 7 George Whitelock, 6 Kieran Read (c), 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Jason Macdonald, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Reserves: 16 Dan Perrin, 17 Peter Borlase, 18 Michael Paterson, 19 Nasi Manu, 20 Tyson Keats, 21 Ryan Crotty, 22 Adam Whitelock.
BULLS: 15 Zane Kirchner; 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 Jaco Pretorius, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bryan Habana; 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Danie Rossouw, 6 Dewald Potgieter, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Rayno Gerber, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Gurthro Steenkamp.
Reserves: 16 Jaco Engels, 17 Werner Kruger, 18 Pedrie Wannenburg, 19 Derick Kuün, 20 Heini Adams, 21 Burton Francis, 22 JP Nel.