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Scott Robertson explains the 'hardest call' for Chiefs rematch

By Tom Vinicombe
Pablo Matera. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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After rolling out a second-string side to take on Moana Pasifika, the Crusaders have reverted to their top team for this Saturday’s clash with the Chiefs.

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In a rematch of last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa final, the Crusaders will host the Chiefs at Orangetheory Stadium and Scott Robertson has unsurprisingly brought back the big guns, making 11 personnel changes to the starting line-up.

In the tight five, All Blacks Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Scott Barrett and Sam Whitelock have returned to take starting spots in the team while Fletcher Newell – who was brought into last weekend’s starting side late in the piece – has retained his spot due to an ongoing injury to Oli Jager.

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The departure of Michael Alaalatoa has challenged the Crusaders’ depth on the tighthead side of the scrum this year but that’s bringing out the best in the new men fighting it out for the coveted No 3 jersey, according to Robertson, with Newell putting on a good showing in the few chances he’s had to date.

“Fletcher’s strong, he’s tough, he’s got a good carry in him,” Robertson said of the youngster. “If you’ve seen him play before, he’s a typical tighthead and he’s just getting better every game.

 

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“We’ve got some great depth. With Mikey Alaalatoa heading off to Leinster – he’s playing great rugby over there, by the way – we’re stoked. One thing about injury, it gives someone an opportunity and Fletcher’s taken that so we’re really excited. 22 years old, it’s all ahead of him.”

The backs have also received a complete shake-up, with Bryn Hall, Richie Mo’unga, Leicester Fainga’anuku, David Havili, Braydon Ennor, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan coming into the side. Mo’unga will earn his first start of the season after only making his first appearance against Moana Pasifika last weekend. Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi has been selected as halfback back-up on the bench with Mitch Drummond on the mend from an ankle injury suffered at training.

The one area of the team that has remained constant is the loose forwards with last week’s trio of Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie and Pablo Matera all retained. According to Robertson, selecting the loosies for this weekend’s match caused the most trouble, with 2020 All Black Cullen Grace left to make an impact off the bench after starting the season in strong form.

“That was probably the hardest call,” Robertson said. “Cullen’s been exceptional for us but Pablo’s just found his rhythm, been really tough, really physical. He got player of the day last week and that’s what we’ve gone for, we’ve gone for just that combination.

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“Cullen will come off the bench. He’s an explosive player, it’s going to work out well, he can finish the game for us.”

Robertson further praised the impact of Argentina recruit Matera, who has been named in the starting line-up for all four of the Crusaders’ matches this season, and suggested that each of the Crusaders’ top-line loosies will likely get a breather in the weeks to come.

“Pablo, he’d admit it’s taken him a while to actually get up to the speed of the game and the skillset and the intensity of it. [Super Rugby has] massive ball-in-play [time] – we were up to 40 minutes against Moana Pasifika, which is high. We were averaging sort of 32, 33 last year. It’s a lot of movement … There’s less stops than you would [have] in international rugby. Now he’s up to play really quickly. Going to 107 kilos – he normally plays 109. He’s found his feet.

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“It’s a tough call because Cullen’s awesome for us but we’ve got five big games in a row so they’ll manage themselves with their performance.

While there haven’t been quite as stringent restrictions on the All Blacks this year, they’ve still been on managed minutes since coming back into the squad late in the pre-season. With so many All Blacks in their set-up, that’s forced a fair amount of disruption on the Crusaders. Matera, however, has been on no such restrictions, emphasising the usefulness of foreign international stars.

“He played 30 games last year, played 33 the year before,” Robertson said of the Pumas loose forward. “He’s never ever talked about resting or minutes. I had to hold him back pre-season and say ‘Come back after Christmas’ just to freshen himself up because he’d had 30 games. There’s definitely no minute [management] talked about [overseas].

“He’s robust, he’s tough. At training we have to pull him back. That’s the great thing about Pablo, he brings that strong mentality to the group. Great professional with regards to learning and he’s added his own flavour to it as well. That’s the great thing getting those international players in, especially his high level. 28 years old, at his peak, he can come in and add confidently.”

The Crusaders take on the Chiefs at 7:05pm NZT on Saturday evening.

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