Marc Hinton, www.stuff.co.nz
April 30, 2009 - 1:46PM
Talk about killer blows. The Crusaders are going to have to try to keep their Super 14 semifinal hopes alive without their most inspirational figure leading the way.
Crusaders captain Richie McCaw has been ruled out of the match against the Lions in Johannesburg (1am kickoff Saturday morning, NZ time) with concussion symptoms.
It's a massive setback for Todd Blackadder's eighth-placed side as they face a must-win match to make up some ground on the competition leaders.
To be without their skipper, and the man rated the world's best No 7, makes their task significantly steeper against a Lions team playing for pride and always a tough nut to crack at home.
McCaw has been replaced on the openside flank by Tasman's Jonathan Poff who gets his first start for the season in the most high-pressure of circumstances.
McCaw was initially named in the Crusaders lineup, but when the skipper showed signs he had not fully recovered from a knock to the head suffered in last weekend's loss to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein he was immediately withdrawn.
Blackadder said he was not prepared to take any chances with the All Blacks captain who had complained after the Cheetahs game of feeling a little nauseous. McCaw also has a history of head knocks ruling him out of matches.
"We just followed protocols and processes and have ruled him out because he's not feeling 100 percent right," Blackadder told Radio Sport's Christchurch reporter.
"We only found out during training after [initially] naming the team we're just taking precautionary measures."
Blackadder said McCaw felt about "65-70 per cent" and after normal concussion protocols had been followed the decision was made. McCaw needed stitches to his head after the Sharks game a fortnight ago and then needed more to a cut around his eye after the Cheetahs match.
The defection comes at the worst possible time for a Crusaders side desperately trying to discover an attacking edge to its game after a run of low-scoring affairs.
The Cheetahs defeat, on the back of four narrow victories on the trot, was a major blow as it has left the Crusaders four points outside fourth and with little in the way of margin for error over the last three rounds. They face the Reds (home) and Blues (away) following this match.
The Crusaders coach says he has faith Poff can deliver the performance his side needs. The Tasman openside replaced George Whitelock on the tour after he had to return home to undertake knee surgery but now fronts for the biggest match of his career.
"He's pretty excited all right. He's a seven specialist and we decided against these big guys we needed a real scavenging seven. And he's tough," added Blackadder. "I have to say he's come into a very big game. Our season is really hanging on this result. After last weekend we've put ourselves into a position where we really have to come out firing."
Blackadder has restored lock Isaac Ross, loosie Kieran Read, halfback Andy Ellis and fullback Leon MacDonald to his starting lineup for a match he described as "all or nothing". MacDonald has also been handed the goalkicking duties after a run of sub-standard performances from Stephen Brett.
But it's tries, not so much kicks, that the Crusaders will be focusing on as they look for the attacking spark that can carry them to another playoff appearance.
The seven-time champions have scored just six tries in their last five matches and they have the worst attacking record among the 14 teams in the competition.
Blackadder had earlier in the week lamented his side's inability to put more points on the board and today reiterated those frustrations
"We've got ourselves into a position where the pressure is on to perform. We are going to have to be at our very best [this week]. We have to win and win well to keep ourselves in the hunt. We haven't won a game yet with a four-try bonus point, and that's our challenge."
Asked if he could pinpoint what was preventing tries being accumulated, Blackadder admitted to deep frustration over errors, tactical misjudgements and a lack of patience that were conspiring to undermine the defending champions.
"We're piling pressure back on ourselves and it doesn't need to be that way. That's the really frustrating part," he told Radio Sport.
Blackadder also hoped the restoration of Ellis to starting duties would help after the halfback had been given an impact role last week to spare his tender ribs.
"He's absolutely vital for this team. He gives us that quick ball, he's a good organiser, is very experienced and he's the right man for the big occasion. We're a different side when Andy's in control there."
Ellis' influence even more crucial now with the Crusaders forced to operate without the most important cog in their forward machine.
The Red and Blacks have faced any number of backs-to-the-wall moments over their remarkable run of seven titles and 10 playoff appearances. Now is most definitely one of them.
The revised team is:
CRUSADERS: 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Jared Payne, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Colin Slade, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Andy Ellis; 8 Thomas Waldrom, 7 Jonathan Poff, 6 Kieran Read, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Jason Macdonald, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Reserves: 16 Dan Perrin, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Ross Filipo, 19 Michael Paterson, 20 Kahn Fotuali'i, 21 Adam Whitelock, 22 Hamish Gard.