The Crusaders’ 26-25 loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton put the side’s recent form under the spotlight, after a hard-fought golden point victory against the last-placed Hurricanes the week before, the defending champs have only won one from their last three starts.
The side was constantly under the pump as the Chiefs stood up and controlled proceedings, not giving the Crusaders much of an opportunity to spend time with the ball.
That put the rejigged Crusaders pack under pressure to get through a huge workrate in defence, but one man who impressed former Blues hooker James Parsons was the makeshift openside flanker, Tom Sanders, who was filling in for Sione Havili Talitui.
“The man that played 7 in the opposition, who’s not a usual 7, was exceptional,” Parsons said on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod. “Bryn, you guys must have been rapt.
“You guys must have wanted a big body in there, he definitely got around the field, but also made his presence felt on the night, this is Tom Sanders I’m obviously talking about.”
Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall, who came on towards the end of the game off the bench, said that Sanders has been training the house down to recover from his injury last year and his performance was ‘exceptional’ in a losing side against the Chiefs.
“He was exceptional. For a guy that had such a great season last year and was rewarded with the South team, to unfortunately have that injury and not being able to regain that form and play footy, he’s come back roaring,” Hall said.
“He did his due diligence around his recovery. He was a ‘hundy’ around training, he’s one of those guys that always put you on edge.
The Crusaders loose forward finished with 15 tackles and two turnovers along with seven carries in attack, but Hall highlighted his work off the ball securing the Crusaders ruck as crucial.
“It’s a position he hasn’t played a lot, but on the weekend he had a great couple of good steals, and big moments, and his work rate off-the-ball around the park as well. You talk about breakdowns, he was great at our breakdown getting quick ball being that bigger body.
“He’d a great game and fingers crossed he can stay injury-free, because he’s been great for us in the last 12 months, and when he’s been injury-free he’s had some great performances for us.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 20, 2021
Parsons claimed that the 27-year-old ‘has to be on the radar’ for higher honours with the All Blacks, highlighting his big performance in the North vs South game against the best players in the country and now coming back from injury and performing at the same level.
“He’s another one that has to be on the radar as well, because of that performance in that North versus South game.
“He was put in that environment, and he had a big game that night. And now, after another injury, he’s come back and performed out of position. That is a big statement in itself,” Parsons said.
Crusaders teammate Bryn Hall said that the versatility that Sanders has shown can give him an edge, as All Blacks’ selectors look for players who can cover multiple positions.
“I think it is. The fact that you know he can play 6, he’s played 8 for us as well, and now that opportunity to play 7, all three positions. We talk about squad members and been able to pick on versatility, if he gets the chance to play 7 again and plays like that he has to be in the conversation,” Hall explained.
The All Blacks loose forward picture is congested, however, with Dalton Papalii, Hoskins Sotutu, Ardie Savea, Cullen Grace, Akira Ioane and Shannon Frizell all in the squad last year, although the injury to captain Sam Cane does open up the spot for potentially one more loose forward this season.
Tom Sanders is one more option on the cusp along with Chiefs openside Lachlan Boshier and Hurricane Du’Plessis Kirifi, who was called into the squad as cover last year. The likes of Ethan Blackadder and Luke Jacobson have also impressed this year.
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