Christchurch - Openside flank George Whitelock has been ruled out of the Crusaders team to face the Stormers in a Super 14 match in Christchurch on Saturday, but his absence has been off-set by the return to injury of danger-man Casey Laulala.
The All Black centre was in great try-grabbing form for the Crusaders before he was injured in the loss to the Hurricanes. In fact, it was he who almost single-handedly kept the Crusaders afloat in the early weeks, often scoring tries out of nothing. When he was injured, three games into the season, he had scored four tries, second at the time only to the Sharks’ JP Pietersen.
Stormers coach Rassie Erasmus knows that Laulala must be watched carefully, as he is a big dangerman, and it has increased the premium that the Stormers will place on dominating the battle at the breakdown. The Crusaders are better than any other team in the competition at exploiting turn-over ball and opposition mistakes.
That task was definitely made easier for the Stormers by the omission from the team announced Thursday of Whitelock, who sustained a cut thigh against the Waratahs last week.
It means that the Crusaders have had to turn to their third choice openside flank, Nasi Manu. With regular skipper Richie McCaw out injured for a while, Whitelock was making good progress as a replacement, but his absence will make a difference against a Stormers team that will have excellent breakdown exponents in Schalk Burger and Luke Watson working in tandem.
Burger (suspension) and Watson (flu) were missing from the Stormers team when they lost 22-0 to the Crusaders in Cape Town last February. Erasmus is expecting them to make a big difference. Erasmus said that he would be placing a premium on turn-over ball.
“Both teams do still have good loose-forwards, but it makes it a bit easier for us that McCaw isn’t playing,” said Erasmus.
“I am very excited about what Duane (Vermeulen), Luke and Schalk can offer us in this game. But the Crusaders do still have good loose-forwards in Kieran Reid, Thomas Waldrom and Nasi Manu. Our guys are still going to have to play well.”
Erasmus did not mince words when he was asked what the objective was for the game, and what he expected the Stormers to get out of it.
“Of the 22 players who played against us at Newlands last year, there are only eight left. So there will be no excuses this time if we play badly. Last year we were just beaten by a better team, and guys like Schalk and Luke were absent. If we lose this game, it won’t be because the Crusaders are more talented, but because of our own mistakes.”
Mistakes are something that Erasmus wants to keep to a minimum, and he will be only too aware that it was by making fewer mistakes that the Bulls beat the Hurricanes last week.
A measure of how well the Crusaders have recovered after their poor start and the quality of the young players coming through can be taken from the bracketing of Tim Bateman and Ryan Crotty at inside centre.
Bateman has a slight injury problem that the Crusaders management are waiting on, but Crotty, just 20, has been one of the star players in recent weeks and is one of the most exciting of the newcomers in the new-look Crusaders team.
Crusaders: 15. Leon MacDonald, 14. Adam Whitelock, 13. Casey Laulala, 12. Tim Bateman, 11. Colin Slade, 10. Stephen Brett, 9. Andy Ellis, 8. Thomas Waldrom, 7. Nasi Manu, 6. Kieran Read (Captain), 5. Isaac Ross, 4. Brad Thorn, 3. Bronson Murray, 2. Jason MacDonald, 1. Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16. Daniel Perrin, 17. Owen Franks, 18. Michael Paterson, 19. Jonathan Poff, 20. Kahn Fotuali`i, 21. Ryan Crotty / Hamish Gard, 22. Kade Poki
15. Percy Montgomery, 14. Gcobani Bobo, 13. Jean de Villiers (Captain), 12. Peter Grant, 11. Sireli Naqelevuki, 10. Willem de Waal, 9. Ricky Januarie, 8. Luke Watson, 7. Duane Vermeulen, 6. Schalk Burger, 5. Adriaan Fondse, 4. AJ Venter, 3. Brian Mujati, 2. Schalk Brits, 1. Wicus Blaauw
Replacements: 16. Tiaan Liebenberg, 17. JD Moller, 18. Hilton Lobberts, 19. Francois Louw, 20. Dewaldt Duvenage, 21. Dylan Des Fountain, 22. Conrad Jantjes