Codie Taylor, last year's busiest All Black, will play his first match of an important year tonight excited about what's to come and how much he can still improve.
The 27-year-old started 12 tests last year — missing only the tests against Japan and Italy. That came on top of a full season with the Crusaders as they swept to Super Rugby title No 2 under Scott Robertson.
So he was in dire need of a break at the end of it and although he was due to return in round three against the Reds, coach Robertson decided to give Taylor an extra week off in order to improve his conditioning. Taylor has been named on the bench for the match against the Chiefs at Christchurch Stadium.
Dane Coles' injury issues meant Taylor was the All Blacks' go-to hooker, and with Coles returning with a bang for the Hurricanes, Taylor might feel overdue to get on the pitch himself.
"The last couple of years have been a great opportunity for me to give it a crack," Taylor told the Herald last month before Super Rugby kicked off. "Last year was a lot of fun. I enjoyed every minute in both Super Rugby and for the All Blacks, and I'm looking to continue that this year."
Asked whether he had much improvement left in him, Taylor, who impressed hugely last year with his workrate and handling skills, said: "I think I've got heaps I can do. I'm getting on now — I'm 28 this year — but I can grow even more. It comes from planning out my year really well and just getting stuck in."
The changes made by Robertson as the Crusaders seek to extend their winning streak in the competition to 19 matches indicates how much depth he has in the squad, or perhaps more accurately, how much he trusts all his players.
Ere Enari will start at halfback in only his second game at this level, with Sevu Reece making his debut on the right wing. Prop George Bower, named on the bench and brought in as cover for the injured Tim Perry, is in line to play his first game.
"The competition within the squad is even more important this year because there's no June test break — we play right through," Taylor said. "I know Razor loves to give everyone a chance to play and it's only fair given all the work that gets put in throughout the year."
Just as he and his Crusaders teammates are embracing the challenge of winning their third title in a row, Taylor, on 41 test caps, isn't one for ignoring the looming challenge of September's World Cup defence.
"You've got to acknowledge the fact that it's there," he said. "There are different ways of managing players this year ... it's important. Everyone wants to play well in Super Rugby first because it will help them at the World Cup if they're given a crack. I think getting that balance right is important. You can't say 'I'm not thinking about it' because it is there."
And while he and his All Blacks teammates didn't exactly finish the year in typical style — a close win over England at Twickenham and a loss to Ireland in Dublin, he believes the coaches already have a plan to fix things.
"We didn't play our best rugby in those tests but it was an eye opener for the players and coaches about where we needed to make some changes.
"We've already sat down with the likes of Steve [Hansen] and Foz [Ian Foster]. They already have a plan to make us better. That's exciting in itself because when we have those induction camps, there are those changes ready to be tweaked."
Crusaders team to play the Chiefs at Christchurch Stadium tomorrow, kick-off 5.15pm, is: 15 Will Jordan, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty (captain), 11 Braydon Ennor, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Ere Enari, 8 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Mitchell Dunshea, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Joe Moody.
Reserves: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Harry Allan, 18 George Bower, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Ethan Blackadder, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Brett Cameron, 23 David Havili.
Chiefs: 15 Solomon Alaimalo, 14 Sean Wainui, 13 Tumua Manu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Etene Nanai-Seturo, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Taleni Seu, 7 Lachlan Boshier, 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Tyler Ardron, 4 Brodie Retallick (c), 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Aidan Ross.
Reserves: 16 Samisoni Taukei'aho, 17 Tevita Mafileo, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Jesse Parete, 20 Mitchell Karpik, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Jack Debreczeni, 23 Alex Nankivell.