Crotty steps up to leading role with Crusaders

GO TO MAN: Ryan Crotty will lead the Crusaders against the Highlanders.
GO TO MAN: Ryan Crotty will lead the Crusaders against the Highlanders.

It's not just the promotion to captain that ensures Ryan Crotty will be under close surveillance tomorrow night.

With regular skipper Kieran Read and All Blacks leader Richie McCaw not required for the pre-season match in Motueka, Crotty guides the Crusaders against the Highlanders.

Given Crotty's experience, this is his sixth season at the franchise and he was vice-captain last year, his place in the backline should be secure; but there is less certainty about exactly where he will start in the Crusaders' first Super Rugby match against the Chiefs on February 21.

Coach Todd Blackadder continues the pick-and-mix routine and has selected Crotty at second five-eighth alongside former Hurricane Reynold Lee-Lo at centre.

When the Crusaders played their academy side in Christchurch last weekend Lee-Lo started at second-five and Adam Whitelock at centre.

Although Crotty has operated at second-five for the majority of his first-class career he has proved a competent No 13 when shifting out one position. And with Ben Smith, who appeared to feel the effects of a massive workload last year, not proving a standout success when replacing Conrad Smith on the All Blacks northern tour, Crotty may appreciate more minutes in this position.

"We were very impressed with how Rey went at 13 last week but also want to see how this combination goes, whether they complement each other's skill-sets," Blackadder said.

When Crotty scored his famous late try for the All Blacks against Ireland in Dublin last year it was as a replacement centre after Smith moved back to fullback.

He also performed there for the final stretch of the Crusaders campaign last year when regular centre Robbie Fruean withdrew to have heart surgery and Tom Taylor was selected at No 12.

"Rey is very much like Crotty - he can play both positions which is fantastic for us," Blackadder said. "We are treating the next two games very much as a trial for all players."

Blackadder and his backs coaches Tabai Matson and Aaron Mauger have also opted to run a new inside back combination of Andy Ellis and Tyler Bleyendaal in Motueka after starting Willi Heinz and Colin Slade last weekend.

Slade, particularly, impressed Blackadder when he ran at No 10.

Taylor, who can cover both five-eighths positions and fullback, has been named on the bench.

Openside flanker Matt Todd is likely to make his first appearance since rupturing his pectoral muscle last September. With McCaw still on ice, wider training group member Jed Brown starts at No 7.

Blackadder is expected to start Read and McCaw, who returned to training with the squad last week, against the Hurricanes on Valentine's Day.

"This is just part of the integration plan. They will need a chance to get out there and perform and after that we will just need to assess where we are at when compared to other players."

Loose forward Luke Whitelock (sore Achilles tendon), wing Johnny McNicholl (hamstring) and loosie/lock Jimmy Tupou (calf strain) were not considered.

CRUSADERS: Israel Dagg, Rob Thompson, Reynold Lee-Lo, Ryan Crotty (captain), Nafi Tuitavake, Tyler Bleyendaal, Andy Ellis, Jordan Taufua, Jed Brown, George Whitelock, Dominic Bird, Luke Romano, Nepo Laulala, Ben Funnell, Tim Perry. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett, Owen Franks, Joel Everson, Matt Todd, Willi Heinz, Colin Slade, Kieron Fonotia, Sam Whitelock, Tom Taylor, Adam Whitelock, Zac Guildford, Mitchell Drummond, Corey Flynn, Daniel Lienert-Brown.

Fairfax Media