Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: McCaw set for Crusaders return

All Blacks coach relieved Carter, Reid and McCaw are on the way back to full fitness.

The Crusaders are expected to have Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Kieran Read all playing in this weekend's clash with the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images
The Crusaders are expected to have Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Kieran Read all playing in this weekend's clash with the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images

A handy 80 minutes by Daniel Carter, a solid 60 from Kieran Read, and news that Richie McCaw will probably play this week - it was a good weekend for All Black coach Steve Hansen.

The 'big three' are on their way back to full fitness: on track to be in top form when the All Blacks play Australia in six weeks - something which Hansen would not have been taking for granted.

Carter's performance against the Blues will be the one which provided most satisfaction. The old maestro's defence was rock solid, his timing and instincts were good and in the final 15 minutes when he slipped back into first-five, he looked reassuringly like his old self.

There was a bit of zing about his movement and Carter's weaving run and brilliant off-load to Nemani Nadolo to close out the game showed he's lost nothing while he's been in cold storage.

"It feels good and I'm really pleased," was Carter's assessment of his performance. "Nothing to worry about - a few bumps and bruises come Monday but you wouldn't expect anything else."

His skipper was equally matter-of-fact about his own performance. It wasn't vintage Read by any means but it was a crucial step towards getting him there.

Having missed so much rugby and training because of his concussions, he's still short of the top-end conditioning he needs to be at his best which is why he came off before the final quarter.

"I was only going to be playing 50 minutes but was kept out there for a bit longer. It was nice just to get some more numbers under my belt."

As for McCaw: "He reckons he's pretty close for this week," said Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder.

Hansen won't want to see McCaw come back too early, but he will be keen to see his skipper retrieve his best form and build his confidence ahead of the opening Bledisloe encounter.

To have Carter, Read and McCaw in top form will in itself enable the All Blacks to climb to another level in Sydney.

Throughout June there was this perception that England had been the victims of injury - when really it was the All Blacks. Carter didn't play, Read only managed 40 minutes and McCaw, in the way only McCaw can, played the better part of two tests with a broken rib.

The 3-0 series sweep was delivered without two of the most influential men in world rugby and with the third not able to contribute how he wanted.

But with three New Zealand teams genuine contenders to make the playoffs, Hansen will be wary that he could encounter casualties to off-set the potential return of the 'big three'.

These weeks between the June tests and the end of Super Rugby are notoriously fraught for the All Black coach. Injury has been a constant theme in this window. The intensity and physicality of these run-in games is high, so to get through two local derbies with Sam Whitelock's tight calf the only issue is a big relief for Hansen.

But it is one week down, four to go.

- NZ Herald

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