Kieran Read's omission from the Crusaders' first competition match should have Luke Whitelock's hair standing on end.
With coach Todd Blackadder confirming captain Read would skip the February 21 Super Rugby opener, against the Chiefs in Christchurch, logic suggests Whitelock, who toured with the All Blacks last year, has pole position for the No 8 spot.
The 23-year-old started there last year when Read was out with a foot injury but Blackadder's recent proclamations may be of little comfort to Whitelock.
Blackadder has emphatically stated the team's pre-season matches were kosher trials; the unspoken message was that any player who cruises would get a proverbial pummelling around the selection table.
"With the two trial matches we have had, I would say there is real competition for spots," Blackadder said. "There is not a lot between the guys. There is some genuine competition."
Whitelock's competition comes from Jordan Taufua, who started at No 8 in last weekend's win against the Highlanders in Motueka, while Richie McCaw and George Whitelock can also play in the boot.
The backrow combination against defending champions Chiefs may also depend on whether Matt Todd starts at openside flanker and McCaw shifts to No 6 in place of George Whitelock.
It appears some negotiations were required with the All Blacks management before it was agreed that Read, who grafted through a high workload for the All Blacks last year and was the IRB player of the year, would only miss the Chiefs game.
The Blues have also brokered a similar deal with frontrowers Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu skipping their opening game, against the Highlanders.
"He [Read] won't be available for the opening game - he will be ready to go for the Blues game. That was always the plan," Blackadder said.
"It's a far better plan than the original one, that he was not going to be available for the first three weeks. Everyone else is ready to go which is good."
McCaw is expected to make his first pre-season appearance when the Crusaders face the Hurricanes in Levin on Friday night and there were no restrictions around his availability for the Chiefs game.
Fullbacks Israel Dagg, who left the field against the Highlanders after a head knock, may be rested from this weekend's game. Colin Slade could start there instead.
"He took a little bit of a head knock and was a little bit dizzy during the game," Blackadder said in reference to Dagg.
"We're probably lucky that Sladie is such a versatile player and can slot straight in there."
Wider training group flanker Jed Brown, who was stretched off after suffering a head knock in Motueka, won't be considered for the Levin game.
Utility back Adam Whitelock (hip injury) is also in doubt.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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