Todd Blackadder has predictably rung the changes in his Crusaders team to face the Western Force in Perth on Friday night, but it’s perhaps one he didn’t make that is the most significant as the seven-time champions prepare for their playoff push.
Rugbyheaven NZ reports that Blackadder has left the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw on his preferred openside flank for a second straight match, after the world’s best No 7 had spent the bulk of the campaign previously at No 6 operating in a sort of dual-fetcher role with George Whitelock.
McCaw admitted he may have been “sub-consciously” boosted by his return there in last week’s 45-6 romp over the Cheetahs, though is adamant that he doesn’t mind which flank he plays on.
But Blackadder’s selection this week is surely a pointer that McCaw is set for an extended run in the position not only where he operates best, but where he is most comfortable.
The other features of a lineup featuring nine changes all told sees Dan Carter return from injury and Kahn Fotuali’i retain the halfback jersey ahead of Andy Ellis as Blackadder continues to use the depth in his squad on the first leg of their three-game road swing.
There are four changes in the pack and another five in the backline, with Blackadder clearly conscious of keeping one or two bodies fresh for the next fortnight when they will visit the Stormers and Bulls in fixtures that will have a major bearing on the makeup of the top four.
Blackadder has remade his back three with Sean Maitland moving to fullback, Adam Whitelock coming in on the right wing and Zac Guildford returning to his customary No 11 jersey. Colin Slade drops to the bench to provide cover.
Robbie Fruean also returns at centre, Daniel Carter is back after hip problems ruled him out against the Cheetahs and in the most notable selection of all, Fotuali’i retains the No 9 jersey despite Ellis being fit again after concussion problems.
Blackadder said that came down to a decision based purely and simply on form after the Tasman halfback made the most of his chances in Ellis’ absence.
“He’s been on fire,” Blackadder told The Press.
“We reward those guys that do play well and you see them coming into the starting lineup when they do play well, and Kahn is one of them. That is taking nothing away from Andy whatsoever but we have got a guy in red-hot form and we are going to reward him for that.”
Up front Blackadder has given Thomas Waldrom another chance at No 8 after a strong outing against the Cheetahs, meaning George Whitelock drops to the bench to allow Kieran Read to slot back in on the blindside flank.
The All Blacks captain gets another start at openside after admitting he may have been “sub-consciously” boosted by his return there against the Cheetahs after playing most of the season at No 6. McCaw is adamant that he doesn’t mind which flank he plays on, but Blackadder’s selection this week is a pointer that the best No 7 in the world is set for an extended run where he operates best.
Veteran Brad Thorn also returns to the second row where he’ll partner Chris Jack, with Sam Whitelock dropping to the bench, while it’s another Franks brothers affair in the front row, with Owen back on the tighthead side and Ben moving across to take Wyatt Crockett’s No 1 jersey.
McCaw told Radio Sport today that the big focus this week was on better ball-security.
“Last week we turned over a bit of ball, and if you do that against teams like the Bulls and Stormers, and even the Force, they’ve got the ability to capitalise on it. That’s one area we need to tidy up.
“But there are things that are going well,” he added. “The scrum’s been ticking along not too bad and we’ve been creating some turnovers and using the ball.
“Parts of our game are pretty good and if we can perhaps hold on to the ball a bit more and build a bit more pressure…”
McCaw admitted the Crusaders had yet to put together the “complete” performance this year but hinted that the team was steeled for a definitive next three rounds.
“The next three weeks away will determine whether we’re there at the end. The reality is this is the part of the season when you’ve got to be performing if you want to have a shot at the end of May. We’re pretty happy to be where we are, and we’re soon going to be playing two other teams at the top as well. It makes for some fairly interesting footy.”
It does that. But first things first. There is the Force to take care of before thoughts can turn to the South African heavyweights. The match kicks off at 11.45pm (NZ time) on Friday night.
CRUSADERS: 15 Sean Maitland, 14 Adam Whitelock, 13 Robert Fruean, 12 Ryan Criotty, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Kahn Fotuali’i; 8 Thomas Waldrom, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Kieran Read, 5 Chris Jack, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ti’i Paulo, 1 Ben Franks.
Reserves: 16 Daniel Perrin, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Sam Whitelock, 19 George Whitelock, 20 Andy Ellis, 21 Daniel Bowden, 22 Colin Slade.