By RICHARD KNOWLER - The Press
Richie McCaw could be back playing as early as next weekend but that could be too late for the Crusaders their title hopes may already be toast.
Forced out because of another bout of concussion, openside flanker McCaw has been replaced by Jonathan Poff for tomorrow morning's crucial match against the Lions at Johannesburg's Ellis Park. Kieran Read has taken over the captaincy.
This latest injury again raises valid questions over how much longer McCaw can continue subjecting himself to this punishment and will also be a concern for All Blacks coach Graham Henry, who has yet to unearth a worthy back-up for his gun No7 at international level.
He was also forced to miss the second-round match against the Brumbies because of concussion, although that was the first time he had been sidelined with such an injury since 2006.
McCaw's absence will be a huge blow to the Crusaders' hopes of qualifying for the Super 14 playoffs, with his presence at the breakdown as seen in his return from a knee injury against the Sharks in Durban a fortnight ago and all-round workrate sure to be sorely missed.
The Crusaders need to beat the Lions to remain a chance to defend their title, and they may well need a four-try bonus point too if they are to keep up the charge to qualify for the top four.
Blackadder initially named McCaw to start in Jo'burg but said the player did not feel well at training on Thursday morning (NZ time) and did not want to risk his health.
"He didn't really know before training how he would go, so we wanted to see how he was. When he said he wasn't feeling fully OK, we ruled him out," Blackadder said."He took a knock to the forehead against the Sharks and another around the eyes against the Cheetahs. He said today that he just didn't feel right and now we are just going to follow the concussion protocols. He was probably about 60 per cent fit."
McCaw required medical attention to halt the flow of blood for both head injuries against the two South African teams but played on. Against the Cheetahs last weekend he was oddly quiet at the post-tackle scrap, an area where the Lions will aim to exploit the Crusaders.
If the Crusaders can beat the Lions a mountain that has suddenly got tougher to climb given they have lost their talismanic skipper they will head into next Friday night's match against the Queensland Reds knowing their title hopes are not gone.
Blackadder refused to rule McCaw out of the next matches against the Reds in Christchurch and the Blues in Auckland.
"I don't think it's the end of his season by any means. We will evaluate him and see how he feels next week. The first thing is to make sure he feels 100 per cent right."
This will be a huge challenge for Poff, who was only called into the South African tour because McCaw's back-up, George Whitelock, was forced to return home early with a knee injury.
Poff has never started for the Crusaders and when injury forced McCaw and Whitelock out of the match against the Stormers earlier this season, Nasi Manu was drafted into the unfamiliar No7 spot instead.
Manu has not toured with the Crusaders in South Africa because only 26 players can travel under Sanzar rules.
Meanwhile, Japan-bound Hamish Gard has been promoted to the bench as a replacement for Kade Poki, who suffered a haematoma behind the knee in Bloemfontein.