Why Scott Robertson is 'excited' for Pablo Matera's Crusaders debut
Regarded as one of the finest loose forwards in the world, the 28-year-old has been named to make his official debut for the Christchurch-based outfit against the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday.
Donning the No 6 jersey in an all-star back row that also features one-test All Black Cullen Grace and ex-New Zealand U20 captain Tom Christie, Matera is expected to provide a strong impact for the Crusaders from the short side of the scrum.
Robertson is similarly expectant of big things from his marquee signing following some impressive displays at training from the side’s scenic Queenstown base as part of New Zealand Rugby’s centralised temporary Covid bubble.
“He’s pretty impressed, you know? It’s a breathtaking place, Queenstown, the sort of alpine views. When you’re in Lake Wakatipu most days, it’s 27-odd degrees, it ain’t too bad, so he’s loving it,” Robertson told media of how Matera has adapted to life in Queenstown.
“Normally they’d have camps in the French Alps [in the Top 14] and for us to come down here is sort of the equivalent, but he’s slotted in nicely. He’s a really good pro and his English is good. He did it at school … and he’s slotted right in.
“We have to sometimes repeat things, but his uptake is great, and he can play. He’s fitted into training well and his intensity’s always high so we have to pull him back, but he’s excited. We’re excited to see him play, like all our fans.”
Matera – who guided the Jaguares to the 2019 Super Rugby final, where he was crowned Man of the Match against the Crusaders – isn’t the only player Robertson has high hopes for the season ahead.
After missing All Blacks selection last year following a breakout debut campaign in 2020, Robertson is eager to see Matera’s fellow loose forward Grace to return to the sort of form that first earned him selection Ian Foster’s national squad two years ago.
Following a brief cameo appearance off the bench in his sole All Blacks outing during New Zealand’s 24-22 Bledisloe Cup defeat to the Wallabies in Brisbane, Grace injured his sternoclavicular joint in a pre-season match for Canterbury last August.
That setback, which Robertson described as a “very rare” injury, robbed the 22-year-old of the chance to push for an All Blacks re-call.
However, the Crusaders boss is optimistic that Grace, who has been named to start at No 8 against the Hurricanes, will bounce back to his best this season and beyond.
“Cullen, he obviously had a really serious injury last year after a great first year of Super Rugby, made the All Blacks, and then he’s had a big setback,” Robertson said.
“I work individually with him, I’m running the loose forwards group, and we’ve got a good bond. It’s been a real challenge mentally and physically for him to come back from the injury.
“It’s a major, major injury he had. He popped his clavicle wing which is very rare, normally a seat-belt injury in car accidents. It popped in and they had to pull it back out.
“It’s a long story but he’s come back, he’s put weight on. He’s built his body over the last eight months since the surgery.
“Our mindset’s for the next 10 years, not just this season. With the amount of effort he’s put in, he’s set himself up to have a good year.”
Robertson was similarly positive about the prospect of young first-five Fergus Burke filling the No 10 jersey in the absence of All Blacks star Richie Mo’unga, whose contract allows him to miss the opening three rounds of Super Rugby Pacific.
In Burke, the Crusaders have a 22-year-old pivot who has managed only a handful of appearances at Super Rugby level, but Robertson had full confidence in the youngster’s ability to guide his star-studded backline around the park.
“He’s known for a long period of time that the 10 [jersey] is going to be handed to him to take care of this team. He’s done a great job so far,” Robertson said of Burke.
“He’s mature. He’s 22-years-old. He’s been in our group for three years so he’s had a good apprenticeship to be ready for it and look, we’ve got around him as much we possible can.
“[Crusaders assistant coaches] Scott Hansen and Andrew Goodman have put a lot of time into him to make sure he’s ready to go, and then just run out and play, trust his instincts when he gets out there. That’s the biggest thing and the message from us.”
Burke, Grace and Matera will all take to the field for the Crusaders for the first time this year when they kick-off against the Hurricanes at 7:05pm on Saturday.
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