The Crusaders have been hit with a significant injury blow with young star Cullen Grace ruled out of action for the foreseeable future with a fractured thumb.

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The franchise made the announcement on Tuesday, saying Grace will require surgery on the base of his right thumb after injuring it during his side’s 18-13 Super Rugby Aotearoa win over the Chiefs on Sunday.

No return to play timeframe or injury replacement player has yet been given by the Crusaders.

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The loss of the 20-year-old will be certainly be felt by the back-to-back-to-back reigning Super Rugby champions, who have relied heavily on the youngster as a key component in their forward pack in his debut campaign at this level.

Capable of playing lock, Grace has mainly been deployed at blindside flanker for Scott Robertson’s side, starting on the short side of the scrum in five times this year.

It’s there where the Hawera-born Timaru Boys’ High School product has flourished, with his high defensive work rate and supreme ability at the lineout thrusting him into All Blacks consideration.

With national captain Sam Cane expected to remain at openside flanker and Ardie Savea arguably the favourite to fill the vacant No. 8 role, there is an opening that Grace could fill in the All Blacks set-up, and his performances in 2020 would warrant such a call-up.

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His upcoming spell on the sideline may put a dent in his international aspirations this season, though, as there are a plethora of other budding loose forwards across New Zealand who have impressed during Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Fellow blindside flankers Shannon Frizell was a particular standout over the weekend, and he – along with Hurricanes utility forward Vaea Fifita and Blues tearaway Dalton Papalii – already have All Blacks experience to their name.

Additionally, the showings of young No. 8s Hoskins Sotutu and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and experienced Chiefs openside flanker Lachlan Boshier may also force a re-shuffle in the All Blacks’ back row among incumbents Cane and Savea.

That could block that path for a maiden All Blacks selection for Grace later this year, but at the age of just 20, there remains ample amounts of time for him to continue to strut his stuff with the Crusaders.

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The Christchurch club have plenty of depth to cover for Grace’s absence, with the likes of Ethan Blackadder, Sione Havili and Tom Sanders able to fill the No. 6 jersey.

The Crusaders will look to overtake the Blues at the top of the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings this weekend when they take on the Highlanders in a South Island derby at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday.

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