Springboks make four changes for Argentina clash

The Springbok side for Saturday’s Rugby Championship opener against Argentina at Soccer City in Soweto shows four changes from the team which beat Samoa in June.

Two of the changes are in the starting XV, both of them in the forwards, and two on the bench for this Test, which forms part of the Nelson Mandela Sport & Culture Day activities.

Upfront, Duane Vermeulen is back in action after an injury lay-off and takes over from the injured Pierre Spies at No 8. At lock, Juandré Kruger and Flip van der Merwe swap places, with the latter moving to the bench and the former starting next to Eben Etzebeth in the middle row.

On the bench, there is a return for the experienced duo of Fourie du Preez and Gurthrö Steenkamp.

“Continuity has been key for us this year and that is why we’ve opted not to make too many changes to the team for Saturday’s Test against Argentina,” said Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer.

The Springbok team to face Argentina in Soweto is:

Position Name Province Test Caps
15 Willie le Roux GWK Griquas 3
14 Bjorn Basson Vodacom Blue Bulls 9
13 JJ Engelbrecht Vodacom Blue Bulls 4
12 Jean de Villiers (captain) DHL Western Province 87
11 Bryan Habana Toulon, France 86
10 Morné Steyn Stade Francais, France 45
9 Ruan Pienaar Ulster, N.Ireland 66
8 Duane Vermeulen DHL Western Province 7
7 Willem Alberts The Sharks 21
6 Francois Louw Bath, England 19
5 Juandré Kruger Racing Metro, France 11
4 Eben Etzebeth DHL Western Province 14
3 Jannie du Plessis The Sharks 45
2 Adriaan Strauss Toyota FS Cheetahs 24
1 Tendai Mtawarira The Sharks 44
Replacements
16 Bismarck du Plessis The Sharks 48
17 Gurthrö Steenkamp Toulouse, France 40
18 Coenie Oosthuizen Toyota FS Cheetahs 4
19 Flip van der Merwe Vodacom Blue Bulls 26
20 Siya Kolisi DHL Western Province 2
21 Fourie du Preez Suntory Sungoliath, Japan 62
22 Pat Lambie The Sharks 23
23 Jan Serfontein Vodacom Blue Bulls 3

Issued by SARU Corporate Affairs

Stamp out the feel-good factor around new Wallabies coach is the All Blacks focus for Sat

Stamping out the feel-good factor around new Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie is the All Blacks early focus as they brace for a tough Rugby Championship opener in Sydney.

The All Blacks believe McKenzie’s arrival will give their trans-Tasman rivals a major boost this season and particularly during his first match in charge.

“You only have to look back to when they had Robbie Deans in his first test – they gave us a good touch-up,” All Black centre Conrad Smith said.

“We have to expect the same. It brings a big fizz and it brings a whole new energy about it. They’ll have the feeling they are going to create something new with a new coach so we’ve just got to expect that and deal with it.”

Deans ended his six-year tenure as Australia coach with a poor record of three wins from 18 tests against New Zealand, but in his first match conjured a comprehensive 34-19 win in Sydney.

That was before All Blacks No 8 Kieran Read’s time, but he echoed Smith’s sentiments when asked what he expected from the McKenzie coached Wallabies.

“You look at the Aussies and they’ve played some test matches at a very high intensity [against the Lions]. So you look at where they’ve come from and you have to think they will be pretty primed.

“Then the circumstances around the new coach will have them excited, and give them that little bit of extra confidence.

“Its our job to go over there and try and smack that out of them pretty early.” While Australia became a bit of a known quantity during the Deans reign, the All Blacks coaching staff are wary of innovations McKenzie might bring.

Smith said changing from year to year had become a major weapon in the modern game, when teams met so regularly.

“I look back to when the South African team were dominating us in 2009, and then suddenly in 2010 it was a whole different psyche, and I think they’ll [Australia] approach this year in the same way.

“Last year we went really well but you have to change your game. If you try and play the same stuff and do the same things other teams will pass you by.

“We’ve looked at the competition this year and we think both Australia and South Africa will be better than last year. It’s the old thing that if you stand still you will get overtaken, so we will keep trying things.

“It’s hard sometimes. The easy option is to keep doing what you are doing, but we have to make a few mistakes to go forward and try a few things and take a few risks and that’s what we are doing.”

McKenzie has quickly named eight new caps in his 30-man squad and recalled mercurial Queensland first-five Quade Cooper. He’s also signalled an intention to change Australia’s fortunes at scrum time by dropping veteran Benn Robinson and opting instead for the mobile pair of Scott Sio and James Slipper.

The scrum has been a major focal point for both camps, with the All Blacks discovering plenty of issues during their first full hit-out under new rules designed to lessen the impact on engagement.

Read noticed the ball arrived at the back of the scrum more slowly and sometimes down a different channel than he was used to during Friday’s training match against Wellington and a Cantabrians XV.

Of the three injuries picked up by the All Blacks during that match – to Julian Savea, Steven Luatua and Francis Saili – midfielder Saili’s is the most serious.

And though prop Wyatt Crockett is unlikely to be available for the first test of the Rugby Championship, second five-eighth Ma’a Nonu (ankle) is expected to be fit.

– © Fairfax NZ News

All Black Squad of 28 every game will now be a trial as they head towards 2015

With the squad of 28 preparing for the Rugby Championship, which kicks off on August 17 in Sydney for the All Blacks, it is worth noting that now only 13 of the 33 World Cup squad are still wearing the black jersey.

Many have gone overseas but along with Weepu, Corey Flynn, Brad Thorn, Victor Vito, Andy Ellis, Colin Slade and Zac Guildford have been regular contributors in Super Rugby in 2013.

Those still on the front line include Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu, Ben and Owen Franks, Tony Woodcock, Sam Whitelock, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Aaron Cruden, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Israel Dagg.

In and out in 2012 were Hika Elliot, Ben Tameifuna and Guildford. Those who have left or are leaving include Sonny Bill Williams, Hosea Gear, Tamati Ellison, Ali Williams and Adam Thomson, whilst Ben Afeaki and Matt Todd are missing along with Vito and Weepu from the French series earlier this year.

It certainly is an ever-revolving roundabout as the group stay fresh and make every effort to stay in front of the chasing pack.

With 11 international matches still to be played in 2013, it will be interesting to follow the form of the next group of players who must feel as though their time is nearly up.

The most obvious position under pressure must be hooker as Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu battle to see who stays in the frame the longest, with neither providing a compelling argument for their cause during the Super Rugby season.

Other oldies under scrutiny will be Richie McCaw, to see if he can return to his superhuman ways while they blood a new man, and Dan Carter, in the hope that he can return to a much higher degree of consistency and perform to a level something closer to the 2005 season.

The new scrummaging engagement law should also provide a clearer picture of just who are the best in each position. With the inclusion of Joe Moody, the list reads Tony Woodcock, Ben and Owen Franks, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Tameifuna and Afeaki all vying for four positions in the 23.

With the inclusion of Steven Luatua in the current squad ahead of Vito, or a specialist lock, the selectors are quietly going about checking out individuals in the All Blacks environment. It is almost a type of rest and rotation policy, without the publicity.

There is plenty to look out for over the next few months.

Australia will be a lot better with an Australian at the helm and a host of individuals coming back from injury. South Africa still have sufficient Francos, Flips and Mornes to suggest they’ll be tough to crack, and Argentina will be far better this year after competing for the first time in 2012.

For the All Blacks fringe players, and those with a few grey hairs, every game will now be a trial as they head towards 2015 and the next Rugby World Cup. Just ask Piri.

Ian Snook has coached professionally for the past 25 years in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, Ireland, Japan and Italy.

– © Fairfax NZ News

Looming tests represented a challenge to the All Blacks to lift their game.

June had been about getting game plans and structures in place and now was the time to refine them.

“We want to get a bit of versatility and not be a one-trick pony,” Hansen said when asked if the new approach was all about increasing the tempo.

The 28-man squad has also been bolstered by three wider training group players who will assemble with the squad but return to their ITM Cup teams on the Wednesday of each test week.

Those players are Hurricanes and Wellington lock Jeremy Thrush, Blues and North Harbour midfield back Francis Saili and his Blues teammate, Counties Manukau winger Frank Halai.

Meanwhile, Crusaders and Canterbury prop Joe Moody has also been brought in as injury cover for Wyatt Crockett who will miss the start of the Rugby Championship with a knee injury.

ALL BLACKS SQUAD

Props: Tony Woodcock, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Joe Moody (injury cover)

Hookers: Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu, Dane Coles

Locks: Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano

Loose-forwards: Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Liam Messam, Sam Cane, Steven Luatua

Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, TJ Perenara

First-fives: Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett

Midfield: Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu,

Outside backs: Israel Dagg, Julian Savea, Ben Smith, Charles Piutau

Training squad members: Jeremy Thrush, Francis Saili, Frank Halai

– © Fairfax NZ News

Boks are work in progress rather than title contenders for Rugby Championship 2013

THE Springboks are into their second year now under coach Heyneke Meyer and while they are better prepared than last year, they are still very much a work in progress and some way off being genuine Rugby Championship contenders.

This time last year, Meyer had not been long in the job and expressed his frustrations that his management team could only take up their positions until a week before the Boks’ first match, the first Test against England on June 9 in Durban. The staff he wanted had been contracted to provincial franchises and he only got his backroom team together on the Monday of that first Test of 2012.

The Boks won that match, as well as the Test the following week in Johannesburg against the same opponents before drawing the third Test in the series against England in Port Elizabeth, and Meyer was reasonably satisfied that his brand new team had seen off the English without a defeat.

The Rugby Championship later that year gave Meyer a gage of how far his team had come, given that the nucleus of the Springbok team had moved on after the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and the results were sobering but not altogether depressing for the coach that had guided the Bulls to three Super Rugby titles.

There was an emphatic defeat of Argentina in Cape Town, which will also be remembered for the catastrophic knee injury to hooker Bismarck du Plessis, but the next week in Mendoza, the Boks were terrible and late in the match salvaged a draw thanks to an intercept try.

The away defeats to Australia and New Zealand were anticipated for a fledgling team, and then came a 31-8 smashing of the Wallabies in Pretoria only for the All Blacks to then bring Meyer’s young Bok team back to earth with a superb performance in a match played in the township of Soweto.

In 2013, after June international wins in South Africa over Scotland, Italy and Samoa, Meyer is cautiously optimistic ahead of the Rugby Championship.

“We are further down than the road than we were last year,” Meyer said. “Last year was really tough because we had so little time for a new squad of players to adjust to a new management team. Now, we have our systems in place, and we are entering the next phase of our development.

“So yes, we are more settled as a coaching staff and we are working towards growing the team, but this is obviously a dynamic process as you try and find a balance between bringing through new players while keeping enough experience to guide the team through the championships you aspire to win while building towards the next World Cup.”

As was the case last year, the Boks have a dual assignment against Argentina to start their campaign and this time it will be a highly emotive match for the Boks because it will be part of a unique day designed to celebrate the life of former South African president Nelson Mandela, who is critically ill.

The Boks were supposed to play this first match in Bloemfontein on August 17 but when the 95-year-old Mandela was admitted to intensive care at a hospital, the government, in conjunction with relevant authorities in rugby and soccer, came up with the novel idea of the Nelson Mandela Sports Day, which will have an unprecedented draw card of South Africa’s national soccer team playing a match in Johannesburg against Burkina Faso as the curtain-raiser to the Springboks versus Pumas game.

The Boks then move to Mendoza for a return match against an Argentina side that, at the same venue in 2012, came within a few minutes of beating the Boks for the first time in their history.

Their next match is in Brisbane, the Boks’ ultimate bogey ground – they have not won in Queensland since 1971 – before moving onto Eden Park, another venue which is not a happy hunting ground for the Boks, and they then finish against the Wallabies in Cape Town and against New Zealand at Ellis Park, an intimidating stadium that has often proved tricky for the Kiwis.

But will it be a game that could decide the Championship?

Probably not in that Meyer, by his own admission, is still building a team and after the clear-out of 2011 he is not planning a peak until 2015.

In the June internationals, Meyer confounded critics that have labelled him “conservative” by introducing electric Cheetahs fullback Willie le Roux, a devastating runner from the back that hits the line and creates opportunities in the manner of Israel Dagg.

The Cheetahs have been the revelation of the South African Super Rugby challenge and for the first time in their history made the play-offs, and their captain, Adriaan Strauss now finds himself ahead of world class hooker Bismarck du Plessis, and Le Roux is now the fullback ahead of the Bulls’ incumbent, Zane Kirchner, a player who is safe at the back but does not set the world on fire.

So Meyer is confounding the critics that say he can only play “boring’ Bulls smash-and-bash rugby.

“I am open to selecting form players, whatever style of rugby they play,” Meyer says. “I want Super Rugby players to know that the door is open and that they will be rewarded, and that we will forge our challenge as we go forward.

“And it is going to take time and educated experimentation before we settle on the winning formula,” Meyer said. “And we have to do this under the obvious South African expectation that we must win every Test. But we are getting there, and now in year two we must build on year one. Of course we want to win the Rugby Championship, but we cannot hope to do that if we don’t first build on the foundations of our first year together.”

by Mike Greenaway

Time for Carter to give way to Cruden?

OPINION: There came a time when Carl Lewis could not run the 100 metres in under ten seconds, when Roger Federer began to sweat like ordinary men and when Viv Richards was no longer the master blaster.

And these times feel like heresy. Buildings will fall and the sky will fill with ash and no more will Daniel Carter be the best first five in the world.

But these are shaky days and I am wondering, just wondering, if Carter’s time is nearer than we think. None of us want to admit it, because the passing of a sports star is a reminder of our own mortality. If DC can age, then what chance have the rest of us of avoiding an early grave? No one likes to be reminded that death, even sporting death, is not particularly choosy.

And it always feels like some sort of death when a Federer or an Ali starts to rage against the dying of the light. It seemed like they would go on forever.

And just when we thought that Carter would take the Crusaders to their first Super Rugby triumph since 2008, the great man is usurped, undone by a spotty kid from Palmerston North.

Carter wasn’t bad on Saturday, he never is, he just wasn’t immortal. He hit the post with a kick he would normally nail. He snatched a drop goal that would have won the match. And at the end, Daniel Carter took his eye off the ball, dropped a simple pass from Zac Guildford and was driven into the turf by a 24-year-old who then pushed the great man away with a dismissive hand.

What made it even harder for Carter to take was the realisation that the pretender to the throne is no longer pretending. Aaron Cruden is the real thing.

There was a moment of genius from Carter at the start of the second half on Saturday when he flicked an inside ball behind his back. It wasn’t flash, it was disguise and it opened up the Chiefs defence. But it was Cruden who made the plays that decided the match.

The first of them was in defence. Just when the Crusaders looked like they might bust open the match again, Cruden scrambled back and hauled down Ryan Crotty just short of the line. He then got to his feet and batted down the attempted pass, before regaining his position in the midfield and making another tackle over the gainline.

Who had ever thought of Cruden as a defensive leader, but the little man inspired his team to take a stand. And that stand gave the Chiefs the momentum off which Cruden made the interception that decided the match.

Afterwards Cruden gave credit to Wayne Smith, saying, “He really instils that mana.” But you can’t instil a mana that isn’t there. Cruden has become a leader of this Chiefs side and at the age of 24 has guided his team to consecutive finals.

The Chiefs’ plotting was terrific as always. In attack they had nothing to do with running up the middle where Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and Wyatt Crockett are so dangerous in the tackle.

In defence the Chiefs tackled in pairs to negate the Crusaders skill at the offload. They rushed the Crusaders at first receiver, they held in the middle and then swarmed the touchline, the back three pushing up hard at the last moment. It was not unlike how South Africa stopped Lomu in the 1995 final.

Nor was it unlike some of the defence that the Brumbies used to win in South Africa with first five Matt Toomua smashing up into Morne Steyn on several occasions. But these sorts of defences can take a toll on a team through a hard season, unless you are young and keen enough to handle it.

There’s the rub. The oldest guy in the Chiefs backline on Saturday was the 27-year-old Asaeli Tikoirotuma and the average age just 24. And once the hapless Clyde Rathbone was replaced for dropping too many balls, the oldest man in the Brumbies backline was 25, with an average age of 23. It seems that top level professional rugby, given quality coaches, is becoming a young man’s game. This is the ‘Moneyball’ final.

Carter made a telling remark the other day when he said, “A lot of enjoyment came back into the side.” That means the enjoyment wasn’t there last season. And it is hard for veterans to bring the enthusiasm of wide-eyed young men. I suspect the Chiefs might take a 22-year-old Ma’a Nonu onto their roster, but they wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole now.

The All Blacks also need to push on with their youth policy. Logic suggests that the All Blacks will not win the 2015 World Cup with two 33-year-olds and a 34-year-old at 10, 12 and 13. The previous World Cup final winning number tens have been 25, 28, 27, 25, 24, 28 and 22/27. Carter is a special man, but he would be five years older than the previous youngest winner.

Is it time to acknowledge that Cruden is the coming man and to consider moving Carter to 12, the position that his early coaches thought best suited him. It seems like heresy, but then the same was said when Carter took over from Andrew Mehrtens all those years ago.

“Mehrtens is everybody’s favourite,” said Murray Mexted.

Not any more.

None of us expect Steve Hansen to pick Aaron Cruden for the opening test against Australia in Sydney, but you wouldn’t bet against him being there at Twickenham in 2015.

– © Fairfax NZ News

Chiefs hold on to beat Crusaders in a classic game. They host the 2013 Super Rugby final next week

The Chiefs will host their second Super Rugby final in as many years after somehow managing to turn the tables on the Crusaders in tonight’s semifinal in Hamilton.

Willed on by a crowd of about 22,000, the home side were on the back foot early in the second half, trailing 9-3 at halftime, only to score the next 17 points, including the first two tries of the match.

Having finished the regular season top of the table, the Chiefs now have the luxury of waiting at home in Hamilton for either the Bulls or Brumbies to travel from South Africa for the final, just as the Sharks had to do last year.

The Crusaders’ lineout proved a real weapon in the first spell, stealing four of the Chiefs’ throw-ins and losing just one of their own, and their scrum provided a solid platform.

But their points all came from the boot of Dan Carter, who kicked three out of four penalty shots at goal as the home side’s discipline let them down in key defensive situations.

And the Chiefs’ error rate was just too high for them to ram home some promising early attacks, while the bounce of the ball evaded fullback Gareth Anscombe when a chargedown promised to deliver a try.

The home side resorted to a disappointing early kicking game in the second quarter that was nowhere near as effective as their ball carrying and wide attacking tactics had been earlier on.

That followed one of the Crusaders’ best scoring chances, albeit from long range, when Tom Taylor broke out of his own 22 and put All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg into space. It took a clever piece of defence from Chiefs centre Charlie Ngatai to intercept as Dagg tried to put winger Tom Marshall away down the right flank.

The Crusaders’ three penalty goals all came within an eight-minute period through the middle of the half and Aaron Cruden’s sole three-pointer also came during that time.

Carter had a crack at a dropped goal after the halftime hooter after a long and patient buildup but he hit it poorly and it skimmed away low and to the right.

The Chiefs dodged a bullet a couple of minutes after the break when, under penalty advantage, prop Wyatt Crockett picked and went through the middle of ruck and put skipper Kieran Read away only for defending winger Asaeli Tikoirotuma to knock the ball up in the air and regather.

To add insult to the Crusaders’ injury Carter hit an upright with his kick at goal and Cruden made no mistake with one of his own a minute later to make it 9-6.

That seemed to lift the home side and skipper Craig Clarke sparked a counterattack, the Crusaders were pinned back in their own corner, a penalty kick at goal was turned down in favour of a lineout and winger Lelia Masaga produced a piece of individual magic, smashing through George Whitelock and two other defenders to score handy to the posts.

The Cruden conversion for a 13-9 lead to the Chiefs was a formality but there was no time to reflect on that as the Crusaders immediately launched a dangerous attack, only to see it founder after immense home defence.

As if that wasn’t enough of a dagger blow to the TAB favourites, big defence by the Chiefs forced a passing error by the visitors and Cruden snatched the intercept and raced 40m to score by the posts and convert.

At 20-9 the Chiefs suddenly had the upper hand, but a piece of superb pace and swerve from Dagg to score in the corner two minutes later ensured the Crusaders stayed in the hunt and Carter converted from wide out to narrow the gap to 20-16.

Cruden had the chance to put the lead out to seven points with 10 minutes to play but his 34m kick from by the touchline just sailed wide of the righthand upright.

Carter didn’t make the same mistake four minutes later when replacement halfback August Pulu conceded a foolish penalty to close it to 20-19 and Cruden’s restart didn’t go 10m.

That meant field position again for the visitors and Carter had an early crack at a dropped goal from a lineout but it went wide and the Chiefs’ defence again proved the key at the end.

Chiefs 20 (Lelia Masaga, Aaron Cruden tries; Aaron Cruden 2 conversions, 2 penalty goals) Crusaders 19 (Israel Dagg try; Dan Carter conversion, 4 penalty goals). Halftime 9-3.

– © Fairfax NZ News

Crusaders coach has a go at the Chiefs

Todd Blackadder has drawn first blood.

Having alleged the Chiefs’ tactics of using support runners to knock over opposition defenders is illegal, Crusaders coach Blackadder has fired the opening shot ahead of tomorrow night’s Super Rugby semi-final at Waikato Stadium.

After sifting through footage of the Chiefs’ past performances, Blackadder believes some referees and their assistants have been too lenient in allowing the defending champions to wipe-out tacklers and profit by generating quick ruck ball.

When the Crusaders beat the Chiefs 43-15 in their most recent meeting on July 5, referee Jonathon White penalised the Waikato-based side six times in the first 20 minutes – many for ruck infringements.

But it is the obstructions that appear to be worrying Blackadder.

“I thought he (White) had a great game because he picked-up all the obstruction past the ball carrier which made a big difference,” Blackadder said.

“And I thought they did the same thing against the Blues (the following weekend).

“In the very first game when we played them there was a lot of obstruction – we got taken out well and truly past their ball carrier, which makes it very easy for them to get really quick ball.”

Blackadder no doubt wants referee Steve Walsh and his assistants Glen Jackson and Chris Pollock to keep their eyes peeled for the Chiefs’ tactics at Waikato Stadium.

Walsh controlled the first derby match between the Chiefs and Crusaders at Waikato Stadium on May 24 – won 28-19 by the home side who went on to claim the New Zealand conference title and win the minor premiership.

The penalty count that night was 8-all. White favoured the Chiefs 10-9 in Christchurch.

While the Crusaders were forced to play the qualifying final against the Reds last weekend, beating them 38-9, the Chiefs had the weekend off and have been preparing a frosty welcome in Hamilton.

This week the Crusaders have worked on ways to negate the Chiefs’ support runners and slowing their breakdown delivery without earning the wrath of Walsh.

“We have just targeted that to make sure we are really disciplined in that area,” Blackadder added.

“That our tackles are dominant and we are putting the right amount of pressure on.”

The Chiefs were missing All Blacks No 6 Liam Messam on July 5 because of a back complaint but coach Dave Rennie offered no excuses following that 28-point walloping.

“We were outmuscled, out-thought, outplayed and probably out-coached as well.”

When asked what positives he could take from defeat, Rennie paused and said with a wry smile: “There’s some nice chicken in the changing shed.”

Having again listed no specialist lock in the reserves – Tom Donnelly hasn’t been required to suit-up – Blackadder will rely on Richie McCaw and Luke Whitelock to add some sting in the second spell.

“That could possibly be the winning and the losing of the game – the guys that come off the bench and can do the job under pressure.”

George Whitelock is again expected to move into the second row if either younger brother Sam or Luke Romano are subbed off.

Blackadder said he had no regrets about keeping All Blacks captain McCaw on the bench.

“Mentally, he could have (started). There is no doubt about that but maybe his form might not quite be where it is meant to be in these really high-intensity games.

“That would be putting him under a lot of pressure.”

– © Fairfax NZ News

Are the Crusaders going to end 5 year title drought?

For 65 minutes at AMI Stadium on Saturday night Richie McCaw had the best seat in the house for a performance that may just have instilled the Crusaders as Super Rugby title favourites.

Certainly after their 38-9 demolition of the Queensland Reds in a one-sided quarter-final, the seven-time champions demonstrated palpably that they possess the hunger, the physical edge and, most importantly, the form to end a five-year title drought in red and black country.

The All Blacks captain played the last 15 minutes off the bench in his first appearance at this level in nearly eight months, and even had a hand in his team’s fourth try as they finished a dominant performance in some style.

But with starting openside Matt Todd producing a strong display before making way for McCaw, the test veteran won’t return to starting duty for Saturday night’s semifinal in Hamilton.

Coach Todd Blackadder made it even clearer by suggesting he won’t be “making change for change’s sake” after his starting XV produced the goods so emphatically. He also praised the effort of starting No 7 Matt Todd who had a strong game before making way for McCaw.

McCaw indicated after just his second outing of the year that he would be content to continue in the impact role.

“It might be a bit tough, mightn’t it,” he said of prospects of breaking into the starting XV for the semi. “To be honest I’m just happy to be given a shot to have a run round. I’ll hope for the best next week, but the boys are going good.”

The veteran of 117 tests for the All Blacks admitted the Crusaders would be hard to peg back in this sort of form – they have now won five straight – but offered a qualifier in terms of what Saturday night meant.

“That’s the big trick of sport isn’t it, being able to back those performances up. You do that by preparing well. If we can produce something like that next week we’ll be pretty happy.”

McCaw said his long spell on his much-needed sabbatical had achieved exactly what it had been intended for.

“I was pretty nervous today turning up, and there was just an excitement about getting out on the field. That’s the way rugby should be,” he said.

“I don’t think it had disappeared, but certainly today reminded me why I do it and when you see the boys running round like that … you don’t get to play this game forever, and you want to make the most of every time you get out there.

“That becomes pretty evident when you sit and watch for a while.”

The great man also offered a telling reflection of the motivation that’s fuelling this Crusaders group as they make a remarkable 12th consecutive semifinal appearance, and a 15th in 18 years of the competition.

“A lot of the boys have been in this situation the last couple of years and come up short and it would be pretty disappointing to get this far again and not put our best performance out there.

“There will be four teams now all thinking that same thing, and it comes down to the guys who can put it out there. We’ve got to be hungry and if we can prepare like we did this week and put a performance out there it’s going take a good team to match that.”

It also wasn’t lost on McCaw that so many of his All Black colleagues – most notably Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Wyatt Crockett and Dan Carter – produced top-quality performances to set the tone for the red and blacks.

“That’s the key. The guys who haven’t played international footy just follow on and perform like that because they see it coming from the guys who have been there and done that. Guys like DC, Kieran, Wyatt and Sam all had big games and have been playing pretty well lately.

“That’s what you expect from your top players and when you’ve got them all doing that you sort of feed off each other.”

McCaw highlighted his team’s dominance in the contact area as the facet of the Crusaders game that impressed him most.

“We really stopped their go-forward there and when we were carrying we made the advantage line most times. That’s the key to rugby. When they were struggling to get anywhere they had to kick it and gave us chances.”

And his own fitness after so long out of the game?

“There was a fair bit of running there at the end and I was blowing a bit, but I don’t feel too bad considering. Having had that bit of time out there along with last week, hopefully I’ll be a lot better for it.”

– © Fairfax NZ News

The structure of the Super Rugby Finals Series is as follows:

WEEK ROUND MATCH HOME AWAY
1 Qualifier A Crusaders Reds
1 Qualifier B Brumbies Cheetahs
2 Semi-Final C Bulls Highest-ranked winner of A and B
3 Semi-Final D Chiefs Other winner of A and B
4 Final E Highest-ranked winner of C and D Other winner of C and D

SANZAR will confirm the Super Rugby Semi-Finals schedule immediately following the Brumbies v Cheetahs clash on Sunday.

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