Super Rugby: Crusaders welcome back captain Sam Whitelock for South Island derby against Highlanders

2019-03-14 03:16:26

Rested, refreshed and itching to hit somebody - the Crusaders have finally got their captain back.

Lock Sam Whitelock will make his first appearance of the season when the reigning champions visit the Highlanders at Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday night.

"I'm sure a couple of the boys will be happy I'm not being held back another week because I've been a little bit niggly at training and they'll be excited for me to just tone it down a little bit," Whitelock said.

He will start at lock alongside Scott Barrett, arguably the form player of the competition through the first month, as the competition frontrunners target a record-extending 20th win on the bounce.

It will be Whitelock's first game since the All Blacks' narrow defeat to Ireland in Dublin last November, before New Zealand Rugby shut him down and instructed the Crusaders not to play him until at least week five.

The 30-year-old was visibly drained at the back end of last season but maintains no surgery was needed to repair any niggles during the off-season, including to his troublesome groin.

"My groin was the major one, trying to get that right took a lot of time. But the best thing is I had the time to take, rather than trying to rush back and only getting it half right," Whitelock said.

"I felt I was in a pretty good space [at the end of last season], but just lacking a little bit of that last five to 10 per cent, especially those first couple of steps out of a breakdown, or getting off the ground. If you take that away from any player, it is frustrating."

Whitelock's return follows hooker Codie Taylor's last week. Only All Blacks captain Kieran Read, who is expected to return against the Hurricanes in a fortnight, remains unavailable.

With Whitelock sitting out scalps against the Blues, Hurricanes, Reds and Chiefs, Crusaders coach Scott Robertson utilised flanker Matt Todd (three games) and midfielder Ryan Crotty (one game) as stand in captains.

"He's keen and energetic and he's in as good nick as he's been in for a number of years," Robertson said of his returning skipper.

"At the time when you get told your skip is going to be away, you think how are you going to deal with it because he's been so much of a part of our success? But he's quietly worked in behind the scenes and comes back in at a great time for us, and brings his energy and, more importantly, is ready to play world class rugby."

Whitelock, who called himself a "horrific" spectator, is one of eight players set to start against the Highlanders who were not in the run-on team which blitzed the Chiefs in Christchurch last week.

Most notably, tighthead prop Owen Franks, who will play his 150th game for the franchise, returns to the starting side after a week off. Todd and wing George Bridge are also back after a break.

With loosehead prop Joe Moody (ankle sprain) ruled out, Otago prop George Bower has been given the nod to start in the No 1 jersey over Harry Allan.

Bower, who joined the team as injury cover in December, made his Crusaders debut last weekend when he replaced tighthead prop Michael Alaalatoa in the second half.

"He can play both sides [of the scrum] so we're really fortunate," Robertson said. "Harry had massive minutes last week and he's done his role great off the bench, so we will keep it that way.

"[Bower] started [his career] playing loosehead, went to tighthead and then scrummed against Owen Franks at loosehead. We thought, 'he can play loosehead, because if you can scrum against him you can scrum against anyone,'. And he's been pretty decent. Here is his opportunity."

Crusaders: David Havili, Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua, Sam Whitelock (captain), Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, George Bower. Reserves: Andrew Makalio, Harry Allan, Michael Alaalatoa, Quinten Strange, Tom Sanders, Ere Enari, Brett Cameron, Will Jordan.

Highlanders: Ben Smith (cc), Waisake Naholo, Sio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Richard Buckman, Josh Ioane, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock (cc), James Lentjes, Shannon Frizell, Jack Whetton, Josh Dickson, Tyrel Lomax, Liam Coltman, Ayden Johnstone. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siate Tokolahi, Tom Franklin, Elliot Dixon, Dillon Hunt,  Folau Fakatava, Marty Banks

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