Pressure on at No7
Richie McCaw is back and the mind games have begun.
Having been named on the bench for Sunday night's Super match against the Waratahs in Sydney, McCaw is likely to have created some uncertainty, and maybe even a few pangs of paranoia, among team-mates Matt Todd and George Whitelock.
Although Crusaders fans were buoyed yesterday by McCaw's long-awaited return from his foot injury, flankers Todd and Whitelock may not have been so vibrant with their celebrations.
Three flankers cannot fill two starting spots which means either Todd or Whitelock could have their neck resting on the chopping block before the May 6 match against the Queensland Reds at AMI Stadium.
This scenario adds more pressure to perform against the Waratahs. Coach Todd Blackadder should have some empathy with the pair – he saw his own playing career cut short after the arrival of a young Chris Jack in the early 2000s. Now he hopes the reactions of Todd and Whitelock can create some welcome mayhem around the selection table.
"They start looking over their shoulder – Richie is coming back, where does that leave me? We see a few insecurities [but] this has always been about team, it hasn't always been about one person," Blackadder said.
"It is important the guys keep fighting and competing for a place because everyone at times has to earn the right."
Blackadder was light on details of just which flank position McCaw will play or how long. It is likely he will enter his first match in six months at the 50-minute mark but he could yet operate in a left-right tandem role with Todd.
"I am really conscious too that George has got a little niggle at the moment, which I would like to look after. And Matt Todd has been on fire, I want to keep them all hot and involved," Blackadder said.
McCaw is expected to command a starting spot, and probably the captaincy, when the Crusaders meet the Reds. No8 Kieran Read could be rested, allowing either McCaw or Whitelock to operate from the boot and leaving Todd in the No7 jersey.
Blackadder has several other options. He could either run McCaw and Todd as a left-right combination or retain Whitelock on the blindside, allowing the All Blacks captain to concentrate on openside.
The major drawback for Todd is that he is a specialist fetcher, unlike Whitelock and McCaw who are versatile and are better lineout options, something that Blackadder will be wary about against taller opposition.
"The message I have given Matt Todd is to keep forging forward. He is very much in our plans going forward, just like the other guys," Blackadder said.
There is no doubt All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will be intrigued by Blackadder's selections. Hansen has already made it clear he views McCaw as a No7 and has no intention of moving the 31-year-old.
Even if Hansen drops hints, there is no certainty that Blackadder will heed his messages. He has already deviated from the orthodox by selecting Dan Carter at second five-eighth, where he will start for the third time on Sunday.
Three changes were made to the Crusaders side that thumped the Hurricanes 42-14 last weekend. Ben and Owen Franks are the props, with Wyatt Crockett heading to the bench, and Luke Romano replaces Sam Whitelock in the second row.
Crusaders: Israel Dagg, Adam Whitelock, Robbie Fruean, Dan Carter, Zac Guildford, Tom Taylor, Andy Ellis, Kieran Read (captain), Matt Todd, George Whitelock, Luke Romano, Tom Donnelly, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Ben Franks.
Reserves: Tom Marshall, Ryan Crotty, Willi Heinz, Richie McCaw, Sam Whitelock, Wyatt Crocket, Ben Funnell.