The Crusaders have named a near full-strength team to face the Highlanders in the Super Rugby Aotearoa season-opener at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday.
Young midfielder Dallas McLeod acts as the only anomaly in an otherwise set Crusaders starting side that features nine All Blacks.
McLeod will start at second-five, partnering with centre Jack Goodhue in the midfield. The 22-year-old’s opportunity comes after Braydon Ennor (knee) and David Havili (concussion) were both ruled unavailable due to injury.
Ennor is out for the season after rupturing his ACL in last year’s North vs South match, while Havili, who started at No. 12 in last week’s game-of-three-halves against the Chiefs, left the field with a head knock while attempting a tackle in that match.
“Dallas is a great young kid, we know that. Performed really well in the pre-season, so it’s a chance for us to get a wee combination going,” Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson told media on Wednesday.
“Great opportunity to build some depth at 12. That’s where Dallas has played the majority of his career, he’s ready to go.”
Aside from McLeod, who has just two Super Rugby caps to his name, the Crusaders will field the majority of their best players against their South Island rivals.
All Blacks pair Joe Moody and Codie Taylor join Manu Samoa prop Michael Alaalatoa in an all-international front row, while captain Scott Barrett will link up with Sam Whitelock in the second row.
One-test All Blacks loose forward Cullen Grace retains his place at No. 8, where he shone in his side’s two pre-season matches, and will be accompanied by Ethan Blackadder and Tom Christie in the back row.
Experienced halves duo Bryn Hall and Richie Mo’unga will direct a backline that consists of McLeod and Goodhue in the midfield, as well as Leicester Fainga’anuku, Sevu Reece and Will Jordan in the outside backs.
The injury enforced absence of Irish prop Oli Jager allows rookie Fletcher Newell to come onto the bench for a potential debut.
The 20-year-old is joined by fellow rookie Chay Fihaki in the reserves, while the rest of the subs are rounded out by George Bower, Quinten Strange, Sione Havili, Mitchell Drummond and Fergus Burke.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 23, 2021
“We went with youth. He had a great pre-season, had a couple of great games, he’s a real talent and we trust him. It’s an opportunity to go and get a debut,” Robertson said of Newell, who broke the Crusaders academy squat record with a 255kg effort last year.
“Chay has a good boot on him, he’s good in the air. It’s just the right time for him.”
Robertson was excited for Friday’s clash given the history of tight affairs between the two sides over the years.
While the Crusaders can boast a five-match winning streak over their counterparts, as well as having claimed 28 of their 40 matches, Robertson expected the Highlanders to punch above their weight.
“All our games against the Highlanders the last five years have been tough. They’ve come down to a few moments, they’ve led a lot of those matches, they are a hell of a battle.
“We expect nothing less, they’ve got a little bit more depth in their squad and Tony Brown, he’s an astute coach. We’re expecting everything.”
Crusaders team to face the Highlanders on Friday
1. Joe Moody
2. Codie Taylor
3. Michael Alaalatoa
4. Scott Barrett (c)
5. Sam Whitelock
6. Ethan Blackadder
7. Tom Christie
8. Cullen Grace
9. Bryn Hall
10. Richie Mo’unga
11. Leicester Fainga’anuku
12. Dallas McLeod
13. Jack Goodhue
14. Sevu Reece
15. Will Jordan
16. Brodie McAlister
17. George Bower
18. Fletcher Newell
19. Quinten Strange
20. Sione Havili
21. Mitchell Drummond
22. Fergus Burke
23. Chay Fihaki
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