Kieran Read will make his long awaited return for the Crusaders against the Force in Christchurch on Friday.
The All Blacks No8 and IRB player of the year for 2013 has recovered from his concussion and flu to start for the Crusaders. It is a welcome return for Read, who has been out for five weeks, and who will play an important part for the All Blacks against England in the test series starting in Auckland a week on Saturday.
Todd Blackadder's men are eager to retain their place at the top of the New Zealand conference and the return of Read will be a big boost. Luke Whitelock has shown a big improvement in terms of his ball carrying and defence this season, but Read's explosiveness and passing subtlety are a class apart.
Blackadder has again opted to start his young front rowers Tim Perry, Ben Funnell and Nepo Laulala, a combination which exceeded his expectations in the victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin.
It would have been hard to go past them given their impact on the match - both Perry and Laulala scored tries - and the psychological impact of bringing on All Blacks Wyatt Crockett, Corey Flynn and Owen Franks in the second half against the Force could be significant.
Blackadder will also be wary about a possible mental shift for this match against the Force, despite them being only one position below the Crusaders in fourth overall. This time last year, on the eve of the test series against France, the Crusaders were lucky to escape with a win at home against the Waratahs, with Berrick Barnes missing a relatively easy penalty on the siren which would have won it for his team.
Apart from Luke Whitelock's move to the bench, the starting line-up is the same as that which held out the Highlanders last weekend.
Crusaders team to play the Force in Christchurch on Friday, kick-off 7.35pm:
Israel Dagg, Johnny McNicholl, Tom Taylor, Ryan Crotty, Nemani Nadolo, Colin Slade, Andy Ellis, Kieran Read (c), Richie McCaw, Jordan Taufua, Sam Whitelock, Dominic Bird, Nepo Laulala, Ben Funnell, Tim Perry. Reserves: Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett, Owen Franks, Jimmy Tupou, Luke Whitelock, Willi Heinz, Adam Whitelock, Nafi Tuitavake.