All Blacks newbie still coming to terms with finals football as Aotearoa D-Day approaches
Playing a final has Cullen Grace excited to help his Crusader teammates lift the trophy in front of friends and family.
After a breakout 2020 season, the challenge of his second year with the Crusaders has been about finding a way to take his game to the next level and manage his young 21-year-old frame in the process.
Whether it be at No 8, where Grace will start in Saturday’s final, or elsewhere in the loosies or at lock, the former Timaru Boys’ High School student says his biggest challenge has been managing things off the field.
“I got some good experience last year and learnt a lot,” Grace said on Thursday. “It’s about growing my game because I’m still learning stuff, but particularly, the challenge is looking after your body because the games are pretty physical.
“There’s always little things you can learn as well and it’s a pretty cool place to be with all the experience we’ve got so I’ve been trying to get around those guys who have been there and done it before.
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“As long as I’m out there on the field, I don’t mind too much what position I’m playing but I’m enjoying 8 at the moment.”
The Crusaders have the benefit of coming into Saturday’s final fresh off a bye but spent the time off coming together as a group in Christchurch. While their rivals played out a dead rubber and took the opportunity to blood some youngsters, the Crusaders came in early to meet as a team and establish a plan for the week ahead.
Beginning finals week, the pressure of capturing a fifth successive title was embraced, but careful management and not loading players with too much information too early was a key focus, according to assistant coach Jason Ryan.
“It’s a slow build and we’ve got to get that right to make sure we manage the boys on the grass and not overload them with information,” Ryan said on Tuesday.
“Every final is different and we know there is a huge increase in pressure. We love that and it’s where this team wants to live but we know the Chiefs are on a high right now and there’s a lot of hype around them as there should be because they’re playing some great rugby.”
Acknowledging how hard they’ve worked to get to another final, team leaders wanted to ensure that younger members, such as Grace, knew what finals rugby means after many of them didn’t get to play a final during the 2020 season.
“It needs to be different because it’s a finals week,” attack and game strategy coach Scott Hansen said. “We’ve worked really hard to get here and you’ve got to acknowledge the excitement of the week and build through it well. Leadership is everything around these kinds of weeks, you’ve got to enjoy it because sometimes it can get a wee bit heavy but we’ve focused on enjoying each day and getting better each day.”
It’s a process learnt through experience. For the likes of Cullen Grace, it’s likely that the lessons learnt ahead of Saturday will put him in good stead for similar weeks in the future.
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