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Crusaders sign Highlanders loose forward to replace outgoing Pablo Matera

By Tom Vinicombe
Christian Lio-Willie. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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While the Crusaders won’t have Argentinian international Pablo Matera on their books for next season, the Super Rugby Pacific champions have quickly swooped to replace the outgoing Puma by bringing in a loose forward from their closest rivals.

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Otago and Highlanders utility forward Christian Lio-Willie will head north for the next two seasons and is capable of stepping into both the No 6 and No 8 jerseys.

Lio-Willie made his debut for the southerners earlier this season, earning one start and one appearance off the bench before succumbing to an ankle injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the Highlanders’ campaign.

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Although Lio-Willie’s time at the Highlanders was brief, the 23-year-old made a big impact on the park and his performances would have likely cemented a spot in the run-on side for the remainder of the year, had he remained injury-free.

“Razor [Robertson] gave me a call and was interested,” Lio-Willie told Stuff this week regarding the move. “I just thought I’d been down there for six years, I felt I needed a bit of a change of scenery. I’ve been interested in their culture and what they’ve got going on at the Crusaders, and hopefully I can add my own unique flavour to it.

“For me, really it was just trying to be better as a player, try and put myself in a different environment. When the opportunity came up, especially with Pablo off, I’m just hoping to replace that sort of role.”

In Shannon Frizell, Billy Harmon and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u the Highlanders boast one of the best first-choice loose forward combinations in the competition and Lio-Willie would have found himself competing with the likes of James Lentjes and Sean Withy for opportunities last season.

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It’s a similar story at the Crusaders, however, with Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie and Cullen Grace likely to be the starting trio for 2023.

One way or another, Lio-Willie wasn’t going to be guaranteed a spot in the match-day 23 – let alone the starting line-up, but has evidently decided that the Crusaders will prove the best pathway to bettering his game and potentially higher honours.

“While tracking Christian through the 2021 NPC and 2022 Super Rugby Pacific season, he has impressed with his ability on both sides of the ball – showing physicality on defence, winning collisions at the breakdown and powerful ball carries on attack,” said the Crusaders’ official release regarding the new signing.

Lio-Willie is aiming to make a return to the field early in the NPC season with Otago.

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RugbyPass understands that Tasman halfback Noah Hotham – who has been a member of the Highlanders Under 20s side – has also signed with the Crusaders as a replacement for the departing Bryn Hall.

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