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Crusaders to be without All Blacks duo for opening rounds of Super Rugby Pacific

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

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The Crusaders are set to be without two key All Blacks players for the opening three rounds of the upcoming Super Rugby Pacific campaign.

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Star playmaker Richie Mo’unga and loose forward Ethan Blackadder will not feature for the Crusaders until at least round four, when the Christchurch-based franchise host the Chiefs on March 12.

Neither player has travelled with the squad to Queenstown as part of New Zealand Rugby’s nationwide relocation of its Super Rugby Pacific teams due to the threat posed by the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

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Mo’unga is utilising a clause in his contract that allows him to miss as many as six of his side’s first-up matches of the season, while Blackadder is nursing a hamstring injury he sustained while on All Blacks tour last year.

Both players will subsequently miss their side’s season-opening matches against the Hurricanes, Highlanders and Moana Pasifika, all of which will be played behind closed doors in Dunedin.

Their unavailability leaves Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson reliant on his back-up options, with promising youngster Fergus Burke and veteran pivot Simon Hickey vying for the vacant first-five spot in Mo’unga’s absence.

Burke and Hickey will start each half in their side’s pre-season clash against the Hurricanes in Arrowtown on Saturday, a match that Argentine star Pablo Matera will also start at blindside flanker after having played at No 8 against the Highlanders last week.

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Robertson said on Thursday that Blackadder’s exclusion from the travelling squad has, in part, forced Matera’s shift to the side of the scrum, which is where he intends to play the experienced loose forward over the coming weeks.

Matera’s positional switch has opened a berth for one-test All Blacks utility forward Cullen Grace at No 8, while openside flanker Tom Christie will play his first match for the Crusaders since dislocating his shoulder last March.

“We’re going to start him at 6. Ethan Blackadder is out for two-to-three weeks at this stage, maybe longer. He just picked up an injury off the back of the end-of-year tour,” Robertson said.

“Pablo’s played the majority of his international career at 6. Cullen’s really confident at 8 and obviously Tom Christie’s a 7.”

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The loss of Mo’unga and Blackadder aren’t the only All Black absences that Robertson has to contend with, though, as midfielder Jack Goodhue is still continuing his recovery in Christchurch after rupturing his ACL last April.

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Goodhue missed the entire All Blacks season as a result of that injury and hasn’t played rugby of any kind in the last 10 months, but Robertson remained upbeat about the 18-test international’s return to action.

“We’ve got a little hub back in Christchurch. They’re training away. We’ve got a coach, a [strength and conditioning coach] and a physio with them,” Robertson said.

“They’ve got some rugby components that they can get in. The big one is the challenge for us to give them rugby so they can play and they can get ready before we come back into our fore, so we’re managing that from afar.”

A further injury to former All Blacks wing Waisake Naholo, who pulled up lame with a hamstring injury shortly before the Crusaders departed to Queenstown, has led to Tasman prospect Macca Springer earning a call-up to the squad.

Springer will play in the second half of the Hurricanes match this weekend, as will Otago prop Abraham Pole, who has been slated to play in the No 1 jersey with full-time squad member Finlay Brewis.

Pole and Springer are among four players that have joined the core group of 35 players in Queenstown as injury cover.

Robertson deemed that move necessary given the five-day self-isolation period and three Covid tests players must undertake if they join the squad from outside the team bubble.

“For someone to do that, it’s a big call, hence we brought four guys on top of our 35 to give us depth and cover our All Blacks, and also a couple of injuries.”

Elsewhere, four All Blacks – captain Scott Barrett, Joe Moody, George Bridge and Braydon Ennor – have all been named to play against the Hurricanes and will play 40 minutes due to their lighter workload on last year’s tour of the United States and Europe.

The squad’s remaining six All Blacks – Sam Whitelock, Will Jordan, Codie Taylor, Sevu Reece, David Havili and George Bower – will all be free to play in next Saturday’s season-opener against the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

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