Picking a starting Crusaders team for round one of Super Rugby Pacific
Just nine days now separates us from kick-off of the inaugural edition of Super Rugby Pacific next Friday.
Uncertainty still looms large over how the competition will play out with Omicron present on either side of the Tasman, but there is no shortage of anticipation and excitement as Super Rugby ushers in a new, Pacific-centric era.
As such, we have taken it upon ourselves to select what we believe will be the starting lineups for each of the 12 teams come round one of Super Rugby Pacific on February 18 and 19.
While pre-season form and fitness may still yet play a part in who is picked come the beginning of the campaign, these selections are largely based on the availability and squad status of players at the time of writing.
Next up is the Crusaders, who, under the current schedule, will open their debut campaign against the Hurricanes in Dunedin on February 19.
1. Joe Moody
Currently the most experienced prop in New Zealand, Joe Moody should be the favourite to start in the No 1 jersey next Saturday. Even with All Blacks teammate George Bower hanging in the wings, Moody will likely be eager to rip into the season from the get-go after a lengthy injury spell between last April and September. That was followed by an underwhelming return to the black jersey late last year, leaving the 57-test veteran with work to do get back to his best, beginning with the Hurricanes next Saturday.
2. Codie Taylor
Likewise, senior All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor had a disappointing end to last year after starting the season so promisingly. Perhaps his wayward finish to the 2021 test campaign was symptomatic of the draining three-month tour the All Blacks had to endure amid the global Covid climate, but it can’t be denied that the 66-test star fell away badly by November. As such, expect a determined start to this season following a decent summer break to rest and recharge. Starting honours in round one is almost a certainty as it’s hard to see either one of Brodie McAlister or Shilo Klein pinching the No 2 jersey off of Taylor just yet.
3. Tamaiti Williams
With Manu Samoa prop Michael Alaalatoa gone to join Irish juggernauts Leinster after six seasons with the Crusaders, a berth has opened up for the No 3 jersey at the Christchurch-based franchise. Two candidates stand out as the leading contenders to replace Alaalatoa, with those being long-serving Irish import Oli Jager and young giant Tamaiti Williams. Jager’s experience and commitment to the Crusaders could put him in good stead to have the first crack at tighthead prop, but the potential of Williams – who stands at 1.96m and 144kg – is too much to pass up. With those dimensions, the 21-year-old looms as a future All Blacks prospect, and the Crusaders may look to use Alaalatoa’s departure as a chance to develop Williams.
4. Scott Barrett
Unlike most of the other All Blacks in the Crusaders squad, Scott Barrett didn’t embark on last year’s tour to the United States and Europe last October and November. Instead, he returned home for family reasons after the Rugby Championship, and should be primed to play after an extended time off. Barrett’s freshness and rejuvenation should play into his hands come selection time next week, as will the fact that he remains the franchise’s captain following his appointment last season.
5. Sam Whitelock
Not only is he the most experienced player in the country, Sam Whitelock holds the status of most experienced player throughout the entirety of Super Rugby Pacific after having first debuted for the Crusaders back in 2010. 163 matches later, the veteran lock is back for another campaign and should be eager to rip into things from the outset after he, alongside the likes of Moody and Taylor, faded away at the end of an arduous All Blacks tour late last year.
6. Ethan Blackadder
One of the breakout All Black rookies of last year, Ethan Blackadder is well-positioned to retain his place at blindside flanker for the Crusaders following a stellar Super Rugby season in 2021. The tireless 26-year-old was rewarded with nine tests in his maiden year with the All Blacks and stands as one of the premier loose forwards at the Crusaders. All Blacks boss Ian Foster may want to see more dominance in the contact zone from Blackadder over the course of this season, but his immense work ethic should certainly secure his place as a starter at Super Rugby level.
7. Tom Christie
Denied the chance to press his case for higher honours after he was ruled out for the whole Super Rugby season by a dislocated shoulder last March, one would imagine that Tom Christie will be motivated to make up for lost time this year. It’s clear to see that the former New Zealand U20 captain has the ability to break through into the All Blacks environment, and his inclusion in the South Island squad for the 2020 North vs South match indicates he is on Foster’s radar. Now fully fit and raring to go, it’s up to Christie to try and push for a place in the national squad with some strong performances for the Crusaders this year.
8. Pablo Matera
Alongside Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s cross-code move to the Blues and Josh Ioane’s shift from the Highlanders to the Chiefs, the acquisition of Los Pumas star Pablo Matera by the Crusaders ranks among the headline transfers of the off-season. Joining the Super Rugby Aotearoa champions from Top 14 outfit Stade Francais, the 28-year-old brings with him a wealth of experience, including 80 tests, two World Cups, a runner-up finish in Super Rugby with the Jaguares. Among the world’s premier loose forwards, Matera looks set to start at No 8 after having played there in a pre-season clash against the Highlanders last Friday, which may force one-test All Blacks utility forward Cullen Grace out of the starting lineup.
9. Bryn Hall
In one of many backline positions that will be fiercely-contested throughout the season, veteran halfback Bryn Hall may have the early edge to start in the No 9 jersey for the Crusaders. A serial title-winner with the Crusaders since joining from the Blues in 2017, the newly-turned 30-year-old’s status within the squad was reflected by his captaincy appointment in last week’s clash against the Highlanders. Hall’s passing and box-kicking accuracy has also been crucial to his side’s success in recent years, but he will face stern competition to hold down a starting role by former All Blacks duo Mitchell Drummond and new recruit Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.
10. Fergus Burke
With mercurial playmaker Richie Mo’unga set to miss the opening two matches of the season, as per a clause in his contract that entitles him to up to six weeks off at the start of the campaign, the Crusaders will have to utilise their back-up options next week. That means head coach Scott Robertson will call upon either promising youngster Fergus Burke or experienced new recruit Simon Hickey to start against the Hurricanes. On the basis of his potential, and the fact he started against the Highlanders last week, it seems Burke is the frontrunner to don the No 10 jersey, although Robertson could just as easily opt for Hickey.
11. Leicester Fainga’anuku
One of the unluckiest players to miss out on All Blacks selection last year following a string of compelling showings for the Crusaders, powerful utility back Leicester Fainga’anuku will be aiming to go one step further in 2022. Able to play in the midfield and on the wing, many cited the 22-year-old’s defensive frailties in the No 13 jersey as a key reason behind his All Blacks omission, so a shift back to the wing might be in store for the youngster. That positional move could be forced upon him by the return of Jack Goodhue and Braydon Ennor from injury, allowing Fainga’anuku – who poses much more of an attacking threat than All Blacks wing George Bridge – to strut his stuff out wide.
12. David Havili
After a four-year absence from the All Blacks squad, David Havili worked his way back into test rugby following a superb season with the Crusaders where he flourished in his positional switch from fullback to second-five. It was in the No 12 jersey where he played for the All Blacks as well, and the 27-year-old kicked off the test campaign with a bang as he impressed against the likes of Fiji and the Wallabies early in the calendar. However, his influence diminished as the year wore on, meaning there is much for Havili to prove to the national selectors if he wants to retain his place as an All Black. That begins at Super Rugby level, where he should pick up from where he left off with the Crusaders as their first-choice second-five.
13. Braydon Ennor
It’s been 10 months since Jack Goodhue last played rugby of any kind after he ruptured his ACL while playing against the Hurricanes in Wellington last April. As such, it’s difficult to assert whether or not he will actually feature in round one, especially after he wasn’t included in the team that faced the Highlanders last weekend. That indicates he may not be back to full fitness just yet, which should pave the way for Braydon Ennor, the four-test All Black who has endured various injuries of his own in recent times, to earn a starting opportunity in the midfield.
14. Sevu Reece
Since his powerhouse debut back in 2019, Sevu Reece has become a regular starter on the right wing for the Crusaders, and that isn’t set to change any time soon. While he was one of many Crusaders who didn’t end their test campaign as well as they would have liked, the 24-year-old showed glimpses of his class at international level, particularly against Wales and Fiji. With 34 tries in 40 matches for the Crusaders, Reece is bound to shine in Super Rugby Pacific this year.
15. Will Jordan
Crowned World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2021, Will Jordan is arguably the most important player in the Crusaders squad. A lethal attacking player who can cut defences to shreds in an instant, the 23-year-old is likely to start at fullback, where he usually plays for the Crusaders, in spite of the fact he plays on the wing for the All Blacks. However, one could argue that he is possibly even better in the No 15 jersey than he is at No 14, which bodes well for Crusaders fans.
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