Canterbury captain Luke Whitelock returns from knee injury to play Auckland
Much has changed since Canterbury captain Luke Whitelock hobbled off AMI Stadium with a knee injury last month.
The Ranfurly Shield is gone, Canterbury's perfect record is no more, finishing as the top-seed in the Mitre 10 Cup premiership is no longer possible, and the team's record book has new entries under heaviest defeat and most points conceded.
Whitelock, who will start at No 8 against Auckland at Eden Park on Friday night, could only watch as he rehabilitated the damaged medial ligaments in his right-knee.
But a month to the day since Counties prop Pauliasi Manu landed on him, Whitelock will make a timely return in Canterbury's final regular season match, which they need to bank at least one point from to bag a home semifinal.
Whitelock replaces Reed Prinsep, one of eight changes coach Glenn Delaney has made to the starting side from last week's 55-43 Ranfurly Shield loss to Taranaki in Christchurch.
The 26-year-old was the team's water-boy during the loss, and admitted it, and the record 60-14 loss to Wellington, were tough to swallow as he challenged the medical staff to get him back on the paddock.
"It's a funny thing, it's not so much four weeks, it's all about once you progress from one stage you can do the next," Whitelock said.
"I was pretty keen to lock in a date and try get them commit, but the reality was they said everyone is different and once you can bend it and run in a straight line, and then your next progression."
Whitelock's return coincides with rookie fullback Caleb Makene getting his first start for the province.
Makene hasn't played since Canterbury's 30-24 win against Otago in round two, but forced his way into the team on the back of his form with the Canterbury development team, and Delaney's decision to spell George Bridge.
"Just balancing out the load," Delaney said when discussing his decision to make a raft of changes to his team. "The reality is making sure everyone is finely tuned ahead of next week is very important for us."
"George has played a ton of minutes all year. Caleb has been playing for the development group and been playing outstandingly well, scored a hat-trick last weekend and earned the opportunity. You get nothing for free here, that's one thing I can guarantee you. He's earned the right to come in and play."
Delaney has also rotated his entire front-row, flipped locks Hamish Dalzell and Mitchell Dunshea, replaced midfielder Rob Thompson with Inga Finau, and given halfback Ere Enari a start while Mitchell Drummond has a rest.
After flicking on the film of his team's loss to Taranaki last week, a game Canterbury led 31-7 inside the first half hour, Delaney identified the breakdown as the area his side most needed to improve.
"There's also some little execution pieces, but you don't dwell on them too much because they're either well executed or not, you can change them pretty quick," he said.
Canterbury can push Auckland (17 competition points) to the brink of relegation by winning the 100th match between the teams on Friday night. The former provincial powerhouse's destiny would then come down to weather or not Waikato (15) can surpass them after playing Bay of Plenty on Saturday.
"They are desperate, but we're no different," Delaney said. "The reality is we're setting our sights on bigger prizes and so are they, so it should be a hell of a contest."
AT A GLANCE
Canterbury: Caleb Makene, Josh McKay, Tim Bateman, Inga Finau, Braydon Ennor, Richie Mo'unga, Ere Enari, Luke Whitelock (c), Billy Harmon, Tom Sanders, Dominic Bird, Hamish Dalzell, Oliver Jager, Nathan Vella, Chris Gawler. Reserves: Ben Funnell, Alex Hodgman, Siate Tokolahi, Mitchell Dunshea, Reed Prinsep, Jack Stratton, Brett Cameron, Marshall Suckling.
Auckland: Melani Nanai, Vince Aso, George Moala, TJ Faiane, Joe Ravouvou, Harry Plummer, Jono Hickey, Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Taleni Seu, Ben Nee-Nee, Samuel Slade, Marcel Renata, Greg Pleasants-Tate,Sam Prattley. Reserves: Kurt Eklund, Isi Tu'ungafasi, Dexter Fa'amoana, Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papali'i, Nico Costa, Jordan Trainor, Tyrone Elkington-MacDonald/Latiume Fosita.
Where: Eden Park, Auckland
When: Friday, 7.35pm
Referee: Brendon Pickerill