Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder wore a broad smile today, welcoming the news that All Blacks captain Richie McCaw is nearing full fitness and that lock Brad Thorn has re-signed with the New Zealand Rugby Union for another two years.
"It's fantastic to have a guy of Brad's calibre wanting to re-sign and stay," Blackadder said.
"He gives you things money can't buy such as good work ethic and experience and it's a good message for all of our players.
"It shows we run a pretty good environment here and it's a good lifestyle in New Zealand. If you're enjoying your football why would you want to go anywhere else?"
Blackadder said Thorn, 34, had been invaluable to the team, particularly with so many senior players sidelined through injury.
"The younger guys have learnt so much from him and Leon MacDonald. They communicate very well and they're leaders.
"Brad's had an outstanding season. He's brought that hardness and that attitude at a really tough time for us and it's seen us through a tough patch.
"If I was in a rugby team I'd want Brad Thorn in my team because you feel more confident having him there and Leon's exactly the same."
The other bright news for Blackadder before the Crusaders leave tomorrow for three Super 14 matches in South Africa is that inspirational skipper McCaw is likely to return for the first fixture, against the table-topping Sharks at Durban on April 18.
McCaw, who has been sidelined for a month after suffering a medial ligament strain against the Highlanders, ran freely at training today, but Blackadder said he would be assessed after the team arrived in South Africa.
"It depends on how he travels, but if Richie is fit then we will probably start him.
"If he wasn't feeling quite right we may look at bringing him off the bench and limiting his playing time.
"From everything we've been told he's good to go next week. It's not so much about the physicality but it's the turning. His straight-line running is fine, it's just the turning and stepping."
The return of McCaw will help ease the workload on fill-in captain Kieran Read and No 8 Thomas Waldrom, who have played nearly every minute of every match, and young openside flanker George Whitelock.
Blackadder omitted loose forwards, Nasi Manu and Jonathan Poff, and wing Sean Maitland from their travelling squad, opting for a third halfback in Tyson Keats to cover for Andrew Ellis, who is recovering from sore ribs, and second-string No 9 Kahn Fotuali'i.
"We elected to take three halfbacks because we felt we needed the cover there," Blackadder said today.
"Ellis missed last week's game against the Bulls due to sore ribs and while we're confident he'll play a full part in South Africa, we've erred on the side of caution."
An addition to the team is versatile back Hamish Gard, who has joined the squad fulltime in place of Casey Laulala.
Laulala fractured his left arm against the Bulls last Friday and is unlikely to see any further Super 14 action.
"I'm really disappointed for Casey. He showed so much promise early in the season and I felt we were probably leaning on him a little too much as he's a matchwinner and a gamebreaker," Blackadder said.
"We all felt his pain. But Hamish covers 10, the midfield, and he's played a little at fullback. He gives us allround cover and he's another goalkicking option."
Blackadder said the team would be ready for action after a bye this weekend.
"The guys are really upbeat and looking forward to the trip," he said. "They've had a good break from rugby this week and will be raring to go for our first game."
After the Sharks, the Crusaders face the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on April 25 and the Lions in Johannesburg on May 1.
The squad is:
Forwards: Wyatt Crockett, Owen Franks, Bronson Murray, Peter Borlase, Jason Macdonald, Daniel Perrin, Isaac Ross, Brad Thorn, Ross Filipo, Kieran Read, Michael Paterson, Thomas Waldrom, Richie McCaw, George Whitelock.
Backs: Andy Ellis, Tyson Keats, Kahn Fotuali'i, Stephen Brett, Colin Slade, Tim Bateman, Ryan Crotty, Adam Whitelock, Jared Payne, Leon MacDonald, Kade Poki, Hamish Gard.
Not travelling: Sean Maitland, Nasi Manu and Jonathan Poff.