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The last-minute 'phenomenal' pick-up for the Crusaders

By Tom Vinicombe
Abraham Pole. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images for NZR)

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While each New Zealand Super Rugby side named 38-man squads late last year for the 2022 season, already a significant number of additional players have received call-ups ahead of this weekend’s opening round of action.

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A glut of additional players have been training with each of the six NZ-based sides, from fan favourite NPC star D’Angelo Leuila with Moana Pasifika to former Highlanders Freedom Vahaakolo and Waisake Naholo with the Crusaders.

Long gone are the days where a team would need just 28 players to get through a 12-team competition, as was the case during the years of Super 12.  In 2021, the Chiefs used 45 players throughout their injury-ravaged campaign while even the least injury-affected side, the Crusaders, handed minutes to 36 players during the season (while the likes of Tom Christie and Andrew Makalio were invalided right from the get-go).

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Although the bulk of injury replacements are brought in to boost the numbers at training and then drift back into their regular lives, some use the only slightly ajar door to force their way into a bigger role and go onto thrive, such as Tupou Vaa’i, who was a late addition to the Chiefs in 2020 but had earned his first caps as an All Black by the end of that season.

The Crusaders will be hoping it’s the latter case for many of their recent call-ups and one additional player, in particular, has already made a big mark on forwards coach Jason Ryan.

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Former All Black Naholo, Bay of Plenty pivot Lucas Cashmore, Taranaki midfielder Daniel Rona, Tasman loose forward Jacob Norris and Hawke’s Bay flanker Josh Kaifa have all spent time in Crusaders camp this season, with Vahaakolo, Inga Finau, Macca Springer, Ricky Jackson and Antonio Shalfoon all featuring in the team’s latest pre-season match, a loss against the Hurricanes.

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It’s a little known front-rower from Otago who’s perhaps been the biggest mover and shaker during the pre-season, however, prop loosehead Abraham Pole.

Pole made six appearances during last season’s NPC but was likely on few coaches’ radars heading into 2022. It’s safe to say that the 20-year-old has made a big impression on Crusaders forwards coach and scrum aficionado Jason Ryan.

“He’s been outstanding,” Ryan said of the young loosehead. “His growth has been quite phenomenal.

“We hooked him out of Otago, did a little bit of homework on him. He’s gone from strength to strength.”

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The nature of the beast this year, with Covid still causing significant disruptions, means that some injury call-ups could very well feature for multiple teams throughout the season. At present, the Crusaders are well stocked with looseheads, with All Blacks Joe Moody and George Bower on the roster, as well as the multi-talented Tamaiti Williams. As such, there are no guarantees that Pole will feature for the Crusaders during the season – but Ryan is confident he will still make an impact on the competition at stage or another in 2022.

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“I’ve got no doubt he’ll play Super Rugby this year,” Ryan said. “If it’s not for us, it might be for someone else. Obviously he’s in for us as injury cover and that sort of thing with a bit of depth but he’s unreal, going well.”

Pole notched up a solid half-hour of action in the Crusaders’ final pre-season against the Hurricanes – the side the Crusaders will again face off with this weekend – and scored one well-taken try in the first stanza. It would be a surprise if Pole is given a run on Saturday, given Moody had his first taste of action for the year against the Hurricanes, and George Bower is fit and ready but hasn’t managed any minutes this season, but it’s certainly not out of the realms of possibility, especially given Ryan’s obvious interest in what Pole brings to the table. The young prop is certainly one for the future, however, and could become a household name by the end of the season.

The Crusaders will face off with the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday evening.

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