Richie McCaw’s return will add extra spice to Saturday’s Super Rugby qualifier between Canterbury Crusaders and Queensland Reds as the All Blacks skipper comes up against old foe Quade Cooper.
McCaw is back after a six-month sabbatical from rugby and has been named among the replacements as the seven-time champions look to stay alive in the Super 15 title race in the sudden-death encounter against the 2011 winners.
The Reds are looking to overturn a six-match losing record in Christchurch, and have not beaten the Crusaders in New Zealand since 1999.
The winners will progress to next week’s semi-finals against either holders Waikato Chiefs or triple champions Northern Bulls, who have a bye after finishing first and second in the final standings.
McCaw’s debut appearance of the season provides a psychological lift for the Crusaders, who also have All Black ace Dan Carter calling the shots in his fly-half duel with discarded Cooper.
And there’s little love lost between the Wallaby and McCaw.
Cooper shoved the Kiwi in the head after James O’Connor scored a match-winning try in the 2010 Bledisloe Test in Hong Kong.
During the 2011 Tri-Nations decider the Australian kneed McCaw following a ruck but was later exonerated.
Cooper said he was anticipating a torrid time from the Crusaders’ supporters following his past incidents with the revered All Blacks skipper.
“I expect that every week. Nothing changes. We just played down in NSW and I take it I’m not the most favourable bloke down there either,” Cooper said.
“It is what it is and that’s part and parcel of rugby and rivalries in rugby. We’ve got a great rivalry with the Crusaders as a team. We played them in 2011 and managed to get the win. I’m sure that will add to the occasion.”
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said of McCaw: “While he’s mentally tough, he won’t be physically fit to the level that’s required. He’s a quality player and he’s Richie McCaw, of course, but at the end of the day we’ve still got to put this team first.”
The match will have a Test feel to it with 13 All Blacks (nine present and four former) in the Crusaders up against a Reds team containing 14 Wallabies (six present and eight former).
The Reds will also be strengthened by the return of key Wallabies –scrum-half Will Genia and lock James Horwill — who missed last week’s 14-12 win over the Waratahs.
While Queensland haven’t won in Christchurch for 14 years they have beaten all four New Zealand sides they have played this season.
If they defat the Crusaders they will become the first Australian team to clean sweep all five Kiwi opponents.
In Sunday’s other qualifier, South Africa’s Central Cheetahs are searching for their first victory in five trips to Canberra when they take on the ACT Brumbies.
It will be the Brumbies’ first playoff game since 2004 when they downed the Crusaders in the final, while the Cheetahs are making their debut in the finals.
The Brumbies lost out on the important second spot to the Bulls after their 21-15 last-round slip-up against the lowly Western Force in Perth.
Wallaby flanker George Smith will return to the Brumbies starting side after playing 30 minutes off the bench against the Force.
“For me now it’s about picking a team that can win the competition,” Brumbies World Cup-winning Springbok coach Jake White said.
“George has all that experience, has played in play-offs and won the competition before so any bit of advantage we can get going into this knockout stage of the competition is going to be vital.”
The Cheetahs narrowly lost 24-23 on their last trip to Canberra. – AFP