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'He's sucking up helium balloons': The man behind the Crusaders backline shuffle

By Tom Vinicombe
Leicester Fainga'anuku and Sevu Reece. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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Heading into the 2022 season, how Crusaders coach Scott Robertson planned to use his contingent of All Blacks backs was a topic of much debate.

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In total, Robertson has nine All Blacks to select from in the backline, including halfbacks Mitchell Drummond and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, first five-eighth Richie Mo’unga, midfielders David Havili, Braydon Ennor and Jack Goodhue, and outside backs George Bridge, Sevu Reece and Will Jordan. Add the experienced Bryn Hall and the prodigiously talented Leicester Fainga’anuku into the mix, and it’s the best kind of headache for a coach to have to deal with.

The long season has meant that everyone has had ample starting opportunities to showcase their talents while the ACL injury that kept Goodhue from representing the All Blacks in 2021 delayed his start to the year and meant there weren’t quite as many cogs that Robertson needed to fit into the red and black machine.

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Now, with Goodhue back in action, Robertson has named what’s close to a top line-up for the Crusaders in their crunch match-up with the Brumbies and somewhat fittingly, all eight of the team’s fit and available All Blacks will feature in Canberra on Friday evening.

With Drummond out due to Covid, Hall and Tahuriorangi will share duties at halfback while Mo’unga will steer the ship at flyhalf. Havili and Goodhue have been named to once again partner up after the latter was given last weekend off while Bridge, Reece and Jordan will combine in the backfield. That leaves Ennor and Fainga’anuku – who scored three tries in last weekend’s 53-15 thumping of the Western Force – to add impact off the bench.

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Speaking ahead of this weekend’s match-up, Robertson said it was no easy decision leaving Fainga’anuku out of the starting side following his exploits in Perth.

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“Extremely hard to leave your player of the day on the bench,” the Crusaders coach said after naming his line-up for Friday night. “[He recorded] a hat-trick and a great performance but we just feel like his finishing power with Braydon just gives us that ability to make a real impact and that’s what he can do.”

Fainga’anuku and Ennor are both capable of playing in the midfield or on the wing but Robertson indicated that the preference was to maintain the combination of Havili and Goodhue in the former roles.

“Jack’s an incredible defensive centre and Dave’s an incredible distributor and can cover 10 for us so that’s the mix we’ve gone for,” he said.

“We’re managing [Goodhue’s] knee. Had a couple of games then a week off so he can just get a slow build on it. But his two performances were at the level you’d expect of any Crusader All Blacks and he came in and we know how defensively important this week is, hence we’ve gone for him.

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“But he’s big, he’s comparative. The one-two punch with other players coming off the bench makes a big difference for us. Tough calls, tough calls.”

The decision in the outside backs, meanwhile, was one that was brought about as much due to the talents of the opposition as it was the talents of the Crusaders. With box-kicking extraordinaire Nic White controlling proceedings from the No 9 jersey from the Brumbies, Robertson is expecting his men to have to take many a high ball throughout the match.

“We know that there’s going to be a huge aerial game and hence the back three, that’s the shape we went for,” Robertson said.

“He’s sucking up helium balloons, isn’t he?” he said of White. “They just float around, they just keep going.

“He’s a pretty special player. I think his time in Europe has served him well. Ultimate competitor, tough and a good man off the field too. I enjoy his company every time we have a chat with him. He can play.”

Friday night’s fixture will kick off at 7:45pm AEST (9:45pm NZT) from GIO Stadium in Canberra. With the Crusaders sitting four points behind the home side on the overall ladder, a victory looms as crucial in the run-in to the play-offs.

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