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Scott Robertson explains overhauled Crusaders side for Moana Pasifika clash

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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Despite making a whopping 10 changes to his starting lineup this week, Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson says he is treating Moana Pasifika with the upmost respect this weekend.

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Moana Pasifika will make its Super Rugby Pacific debut this weekend after two delayed starts to the competition, with season-opening matches against the Blues and Chiefs postponed due to a Covid outbreak within their squad.

As such, the new expansion franchise will begin life in Super Rugby Pacific in the most daunting way possible – against a Crusaders side that has won five titles in the last five years at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday.

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It’s a Crusaders side that isn’t flush with the all-star cast they have rolled out in the opening fortnight of Super Rugby Pacific, though, as Robertson has shuffled his deck and rested a plethora of his All Blacks.

Gone are the likes of Will Jordan, Sam Whitelock, captain Scott Barrett, Sevu Reece, David Havili, Braydon Ennor and Cullen Grace as Robertson uses this week’s fixture as a chance to hand some valuable game time to some lower-ranking squad members.

That means, as was hinted at earlier this week by assistant coach Scott Hansen, a raft of rookies, back-ups and youngsters have been handed their first starting opportunities of the year.

Those figures include locks Mitchell Dunshea and Quinten Strange, new halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, veteran first-five Simon Hickey, midfielder Dallas McLeod, and young outside backs Kini Naholo and Chay Fihaki.

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A further three players – Fletcher Newell, Dominic Gardiner and Isaiah Punivai – will make their first appearances (and, in the case of Gardiner and Punivai, their Super Rugby Pacific debuts) of the year from the bench.

In spite of all these changes, which has given this week’s side a distinct second-tier look to it, Robertson maintained that his squad is preparing for Friday’s match with a sense of respect that he said Moana Pasifika deserved.

“The challenge is to really respect the players, the individual players, and probably the situation they’re in,” Robertson said of this week’s opposition on Wednesday.

“They’ll still be a really tight group from all the adversity they’ve been through already. They might be shy of a game or a hit-out, but they’ll be extremely motivated.

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“They’ve got a lot of reasons to play well. It’s the opener for them, so we’ve been very respectful in our prep.”

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Robertson noted that it was necessary to make such alterations to his match day lineup given the nature of his side’s draw, which sees the Crusaders play eight straight matches of New Zealand derbies before their round nine bye.

“We have an eight-game run in a row with the draw, and with this game and coming back from Queenstown, we looked at it with pre-season [to] give the guys a little bit of combinations to play a pre-season game to get ready for this game as well.

“It’s always good to use the squad and give everyone that’s trained extremely hard that opportunity. We’ve got some excited boys.”

In addition to handing the squad’s newcomers some much-needed game time, Robertson has also also opted to bring back three of his All Blacks who are yet to feature this season, either because of injury or a season-opening rest period.

That has paved the way for Ethan Blackadder to earn his first starting role of 2022 in the No 6 jersey, while mercurial playmaker Richie Mo’unga and experienced hooker Codie Taylor will both enter the fray as substitutes.

Robertson expects Mo’unga and Taylor to enter the match not long after half-time, and said the former is particularly excited about taking to the field for the first time this year.

“He was going to play a development game, but obviously they were all called off. To give him a cameo off the bench is an opportunity to give him some game time to play out the rest of this block,” Robertson said of Mo’unga.

“He’s ready. He’s excited. It was pretty hard for him to watch from afar, but that’s the reason he’s had this little break, so he can come in hot.”

Of those he has brought into the starting lineup, Robertson is particularly eager to see what Naholo can offer in his first outing as a Crusaders player.

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Naholo, the younger brother of ex-All Blacks wing and injury replacement player Waisake, has long been touted as a player with massive potential, but has struggled for game time at Super Rugby level due to injury.

A breakout season with Taranaki in last year’s NPC saw him back to his best, though, and Robertson is hopeful the 22-year-old flyer makes the most of what he suggested will be a rare starting opportunity.

“Kini’s been a really good, consistently over the last sort of month or six weeks, worked really hard to get his body up to a level to train week-in, week-out.

“He just shows something, and the reason we got him down here was his ability to beat a player and that little bit of x-factor. He knows his way to the tryline, so this is his opportunity this week, and he’s pretty excited.

“He’s a young man, hasn’t had much footy, so it’s an important game for him, just to set a scene for us and himself at the club.”

Likewise, Robertson is equally as interested in the performance of Fihaki, who made only one appearance in his debut season for the Crusaders last year.

“He’s got a big boot, he can cover the backfield really well. He’s a good finisher. There’s a lot to like about him at fullback.

“He played for us last year a couple of times there, and obviously in the NPC, so he’s more than capable. We’re excited for him to have a crack, especially under the roof, to show his skills.”

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