By RICHARD KNOWLER - The Press
Richie McCaw will sit out the first three rounds of the Crusaders' 2010 campaign as part of a deal brokered with the New Zealand Rugby Union.
Although the prospect of their side being without the captain and openside flanker will dismay Crusaders fans – and the franchise's marketing team – the good news is that the All Blacks skipper has declined to activate the "sabbatical" clause in his NZRU contract, meaning he will not take up a deal similar to the one that resulted in Dan Carter being unavailable for this season's Super 14 because he was playing for French club Perpignan.
Despite the All Blacks coaches stating the reconditioning programme that resulted in the five New Zealand franchises being forced to rest their most prominent internationals in 2007 will not return, several All Blacks have contracts that allow them to skip the opening rounds of next year's Super 14.
McCaw will be absent from the first match against the Highlanders at AMI Stadium on February 13, followed by the encounters against the Queensland Reds (Brisbane) and Sharks (Christchurch). He returns for the fourth-round fixture against the Blues in Christchurch on March 6.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder took a positive view to having his captain sidelined and noted the team was forced to play for almost half of this season without him because of injury. A knee problem ruled him out of five matches and two separate concussions also forced him to skip matches.
"The positive in all this is that he is not choosing to take a sabbatical and it is good he can take a breather. He wants to play and has not exercised the clause in his contract," Blackadder said. "He's been bashed up a bit this year and it's really about keeping him fresh."
A similar deal has been cut with fullback Mils Muliaina, who will be put on ice for the Chiefs' opening three matches. Lock Ali Williams was also expected to skip some of the Blues' matches but the Achilles tendon injury that ruined his international season means that plan has been scratched.
Blackadder will have no shortage of cover for McCaw, with All Black George Whitelock and Jonathan Poff both specialist opensiders and Kieran Read also capable in the No7 role.
McCaw, who is 29 on New Year's Eve and is contracted to the NZRU until the 2011 World Cup, has not only been hampered by injury in the Super 14; he also missed the three domestic tests against France and Italy because of the knee injury he suffered in the Super 14 semifinal against the Bulls in Pretoria.
"The good thing about this is that he will get a really good break; it gives him an extra three to four weeks to freshen up," Blackadder said.
Although some All Blacks will join the Crusaders in pre-season training on January 7, McCaw is unlikely to be sighted so early.
The remaining All Blacks on the northern hemisphere tour will miss the opening pre-season match against the Reds in Brisbane on January 29 because their contracts state they cannot play until after February 1.
They will be available for the other fixture against the Blues in Motueka on February 4.