Super Rugby Aotearoa was a huge boon for the fans. Do-or-die matches every week featuring the top players from around the country – what’s not to love? The feelings may have been a bit different for the franchises’ more junior players, however.
While the regular Super Rugby season of years gone by has featured a number of fixtures that have allowed teams to refresh their lineups, the importance of nabbing as many points as possible in every Aotearoa match required sides to roll out relatively consistent teams; there were no opportunities to experiment.
That consigned wider squad members to the sidelines for the majority of the competition and while less experienced squad members have expected opportunities to show their wares in the past, that really only happened when injuries struck during the Aotearoa season.
The consequence is that young Super Rugby players from around the country have been sitting on the sidelines, biding their time and waiting for a chance to play rugby.
That chance has arrived for Crusaders this weekend, with Canterbury playing a Ranfurly Shield pre-season match against North Otago on Friday.
No fewer than eight Super Rugby representatives have been named in Canterbury’s starting line-up for the match. Those eight players, however, managed just 12 appearances over the Crusaders’ eight Aotearoa matches – and just three starts.
The most experienced of the eight is captain Luke Romano, while Billy Harmon and Manasa Mataele are a few seasons deep into the Super Rugby careers.
The remaining five all have plenty of talent but struggled for minutes this season due to the compacted calendar.
Hooker Brodie McAlister was back-up to captain Codie Taylor and Andrew Makalio while Ereatara Enari sat behind Bryn Hall and Mitch Drummond.
It was a similar story for one-cap All Black Brett Cameron, who was never going to have much luck behind Richie Mo’unga – perhaps the Crusaders’ most important player of the season.
Dallas McLeod, who represented the New Zealand Under 20 side last year, was also selected with the expectation that he’d soak up knowledge at training but would likely not see much game time.
That leaves Cullen Grace – perhaps the most intriguing selection of the lot.
Grace burst onto the scene for the Crusaders earlier in the year and was expected to mount a case for national selection during Super Rugby Aotearoa but was sidelined due to injury. With limited minutes under his belt in recent weeks, Grace was never likely to earn selection for the North v South fixture – a match which has robbed Canterbury of 12 of their players.
While the pre-season Ranfurly Shield fixtures are rarely massive challenges for the holders, Canterbury’s first hit out of the season will grant fans the opportunity to see some of the region’s less used players of recent times finally take the field. Seeing how the likes of some former and future All Blacks perform in their first real minutes of the last few months adds a little bit of extra spice to the contest.
The match kicks off at 2:00pm NZT.
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