Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has called on young star Cullen Grace to make full use of his “incredible ability” following a subdued Super Rugby season in comparison to last year.
Grace emerged as one of the standout rookies in last year’s editions of Super Rugby and Super Rugby Aotearoa, impressing with his defensive power and solidity at the set piece.
The 21-year-old utility forward – who can play lock, blindside flanker and at No. 8 – was subsequently called into the All Blacks squad for their Bledisloe Cup series and Rugby Championship campaign.
While he only made one appearance for the national side, a two-minute cameo off the bench during New Zealand’s 24-22 defeat to the Wallabies in Brisbane, Grace nonetheless announced himself as a long-term prospect for the future.
However, the youngster hasn’t provided the same sort of impact in his second season with the Crusaders, where he has predominantly featured at No. 8, despite starring from blindside flanker last year.
Failing to really assert himself in any of his five appearances for the Christchurch-based franchise this year, Grace was dropped from the side to face the Chiefs in Hamilton last week.
In light of their 26-25 defeat, Robertson has recalled the youngster into the starting side to face the Blues at Orangetheory Stadium on Sunday in a match that could secure the Crusaders a home Super Rugby Aotearoa final on May 8.
The Blues also have plenty riding on the match as they need a win to keep themselves well within the hunt of featuring in the competition’s grand finale following the Chiefs’ last-gasp win over the Hurricanes at FMG Stadium Waikato on Friday.
With so much on the line for both teams, the Crusaders will need a point of difference to get them across the line against their traditional rivals, and Robertson hopes Grace can bring that extra edge upon his return to the match day side.
“He’s a real physical player, as you know. Incredible shoulder on him. Incredible ability to anticipate play, but just probably hasn’t quite got the opportunities he has [because of] the tightness of the games,” Robertson told media on Friday.
“He’s made a lot of tackles. He’s had a couple of niggles that have come right, so we’re looking for more from [him].
“The surprise factor is gone, as you normally have in that first year. He’s not far away. He’s doing everything, the simple things really well, just hasn’t got his opportunities to make a big play yet and get in your newspapers.”
Robertson added that given Grace’s youth and relative inexperience at this level, there is still plenty for the former New Zealand Schools and New Zealand U20 representative to learn before he reaches his full potential.
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“The skills around No. 8 – when to go, when to work with the No. 9s, the variables of the weather or who you’re playing or the way their No. 9 defends – all of those things come into play, but he is learning his craft and he is getting better at it, and it’s just game time for him.”
Grace is one of four personnel changes to the Crusaders’ forward pack, with vice-captain Codie Taylor, Sam Whitelock and Sione Havili Talitui all welcomed back into the starting side after missing the defeat to the Chiefs.
Kick-off for Sunday’s game is scheduled for 3:35pm NZT.
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