Richard Knowler, The Press
April 15, 2009 - 11:04AM
Openside flanker Richie McCaw's return to fitness has taken on even more significance for the Crusaders with his deputy, George Whitelock, invalided out of the South African tour with a knee injury.
Whitelock has been the preferred No7 since skipper McCaw injured his knee against the Highlanders on March 7 and was expected to be named on the bench for Sunday morning's Super 14 match against competition leaders, the Sharks, in Durban.
Now he has been sent home with Jonathan Poff whistled in as a replacement.
"We were just playing a few games when George tweaked his knee," coach Todd Blackadder said from Durban last night."His knee locked up but it doesn't look to be too serious and he will see a specialist on Friday in Christchurch. All going well, he will only be out for three to four weeks."
The good news for Blackadder, though, is the anticipated return to the starting side of inspirational skipper McCaw.
If the Sharks, who were stunned by a 31-6 defeat by the lowly Cheetahs last weekend, hoped the breakdown master would be sidelined for another week they should prepare themselves to suck a lemon.
Blackadder confirmed McCaw is back training at full noise and is confident the lack of match play will not affect his performance at Kings Park.
"He's running around like a spring lamb ... he seems to be in great physical shape and looks ready and good to go. He's been working pretty hard and we'll be keeping an eye on things," he added in reference to queries on whether McCaw will go the distance.
It would be surprising if McCaw did not play the full 80 minutes; last season he bounced back from a six-week layoff with an ankle injury to lead the All Blacks to a emphatic 39-10 win over the Wallabies in Auckland.
The news is not so bright for fellow All Black Andy Ellis. The halfback is still recovering from the rib injury that ruled him out of the Bulls match on April 3. He may be bracketed with Kahn Fotuali'i when the team is named tomorrow.
Tighthead prop Bronson Murray also skipped the Bulls match because of a calf injury but has been passed fit and will be available for selection, as will veteran fullback Leon MacDonald who was left nursing a tender shoulder.
With centre Casey Laulala's season over because of a broken arm, Blackadder will be forced to rejig his midfield.
He has the option of either using Adam Whitelock at No13 but admitted he was leaning toward shifting Tim Bateman from second five-eighth to centre and bringing in Ryan Crotty.
The Cheetahs' victory over the Sharks in Bloemfontein stunned the competition, just as the Highlanders' 36-12 win over the Bulls on March 28 in Palmerston North left many pundits scratching their heads.
Suggestions the Bulls would use that loss as motivation in their next match in Christchurch proved incorrect as the Crusaders ground out a 16-13 win, and Blackadder will be hoping his men can this time add to the Sharks' misery.
"It just shows any team can beat anyone in this competition," Blackadder said. "The Cheetahs played that game at pace and we'll take the good stuff out of it."