Crusaders need Carter the starter after calamity
Debating whether Dan Carter should start for the Crusaders is pointless. Just get him in there.
His 27-minute cameo during Saturday night's galling 16-9 loss to the Hurricanes was unspectacular, but the subject of whether he should be fast-tracked into the run-on team against the resurgent Blues next weekend is surely non-negotiable.
It's simple - the experienced All Black, who made his first Super Rugby appearance in Wellington following his sabbatical, must start at AMI Stadium because the Crusaders desperately need something to change after that calamity at the Cake Tin.
Although the Crusaders still lead the New Zealand conference and are third overall, this defeat has raised red flags all over the factory floor. For much of the first half their performance resembled a madcap cartoon without the laughs.
First five-eighth Colin Slade and fullback Tom Taylor were placed under immense pressure by the fire-breathing Hurricanes chasers and, as a consequence, their kicking directly to the Canes' back three bordered on the irresponsible.
Halfback Andy Ellis declined to ease the pressure by clearing from the base and neither did many team-mates with their laboured passing, dreadful handling and ponderous kick-chases.
Without wing Nemani Nadolo, who Fiji refused to release from their 108-6 romp against the Cook Islands, the attack was lifeless and Israel Dagg, not considered because of his patella tendon problem, wasn't there to use his prodigious boot to kick them out of strife.
Coach Todd Blackadder said it was too soon to state whether Carter would start but the answer appears obvious. Blackadder's hand could be forced if Slade, who failed the concussion test that resulted in Carter being inserted into first-five, is scratched this week.
The other options are to start Slade at fullback, if Dagg is still unavailable, or put Carter into second-five and switch Ryan Crotty to centre.
Carter won't be at his optimum after a lack of exposure this season but the reality is the Crusaders need to show the Blues, who thumped the Force 40-14 in Perth, they mean business and starting the veteran All Black will do just that.
Asked if he felt pressure to start following the Crusaders' lacklustre effort, Carter stated: "All I want to do is what's best for the team. It is disappointing to drop that game with the competition being so close as it is and it just makes the next two weeks even more important."
No 8 Kieran Read, if fully fit, must start.
Blackadder said speculation about Kieran Read's concussion issues made for a trying week for the player but had no regrets about using him as a substitute for 33 minutes, rather than start him.
"He's just human," Blackadder said. "He's a guy who has been through a lot. He needs the pressure taken off so he can just relax."
Blindside flanker Jordan Taufua, who was replaced by Read, suffered a painful knock to the knee and if he's ruled out - and Blackadder wants to keep building Read's confidence by only using him as a bench option - George Whitelock could start at No 6.
Tighthead prop Owen Franks should also start against All Blacks team-mate Tony Woodcock.
Now for the good news: the Crusaders' scrum monstered the hapless Canes pack in the second half, they plundered their lineout throws and the lion-hearted Sam Whitelock battled gamely along with prop Wyatt Crockett.
But the reality is this: although they still lead the NZ conference, the Crusaders could still miss the play-offs for the first time since 2001.
It's the Blues' unpredictable disposition that makes them such a hazardous opponent.