Richie McCaw is poised for a return to the Crusaders next week, an addition which will boost the team's increasingly competitive loose forward mix.
McCaw hasn't played since receiving surgery after cracking his left thumb bone in the Crusaders' second match of the season, a defeat to the Blues at Eden Park on February 28. After missing the majority of last season due to his sabbatical, he is extremely keen to make his mark for a team who have impressed over the past three weeks, their away victories over the Lions, Cheetahs and Chiefs setting them up nicely for the home run.
The Crusaders have the bye this weekend, allowing No8 and skipper Kieran Read more time to recover from the concussion he suffered against the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium. If Read is fit to play in the team's next assignment against the Brumbies in Christchurch next Saturday, McCaw will be vying with the impressively consistent Matt Todd and Jordan Taufua, who played extremely well in Hamilton, for a starting place.
Luke Whitelock is also improving - he made a big impact when replacing Read last weekend. His brother, George, who couldn't make the match-day squad, is also waiting for his opportunity.
"Richie is extremely keen to be involved after his time on the sidelines," coach Todd Blackadder said. "I can't speak highly enough of the work he has put into the squad since he has been injured. It has been a big help."
Blackadder suggested after the Cheetahs victory in Bloemfontein that he would be prepared to play McCaw somewhere other than openside flanker, where he has been one of the best in the world over the past few years. That could mean a blindside flanker role for the 33-year-old, or a left-right set-up with Todd.
If Read is ruled out, Taufua will be favourite to start at No 8. He delivered exactly what was required against the Chiefs - impetus and aggression with his ball carrying and defence - a point of difference to the more methodical George Whitelock. Luke Romano is likely to be available following his calf strain, and will bolster the locking stocks.
Sam Whitelock has the second highest minutes in the squad with 616 minutes from eight appearances behind midfielder Ryan Crotty's 632 minutes. Dominic Bird will be free to play following his one-week suspension for a shoulder charge against Chiefs No 8 Liam Squire last weekend, the ban served during this weekend's bye week thanks to the International Rugby Board's odd regulations.