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McCaw, Spencer Hope For Happy Homecoming

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Fuseworks Media
Richie McCaw
Richie McCaw

By Chris Barclay of NZPA

Sydney, Feb 25 NZPA - Rugby folk heroes past and present make contrasting homecomings as their Super 14 franchises seek to maintain or change history in third round action this week.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw emerges from cottonwool a week ahead of schedule to aid the troubled Crusaders and Carlos Spencer plays his first match on New Zealand soil since leaving the Blues for England in 2005 as his adopted Lions seek a ground-breaking - and seemingly unlikely -- win in Wellington on Saturday night.

McCaw's return from a sabbatical via the bench will be keenly followed in Christchurch tomorrow as the Crusaders seek atonement for an embarrassing 21-point loss in Brisbane last weekend by maintaining their unbeaten home record against the winless Sharks.

Spencer also reappears in less than ideal circumstances - the Lions have not won in New Zealand in 11 attempts since being rebranded four years ago. Add in their predecessors, the Cats, record and the Johannesburg-based franchise has not tasted success in New Zealand since 2001 - 21 games ago.

Spencer's latest career move has not gone smoothly but the 34-year-old will be keen to show he hasn't lost his touch even if his pace is on the wane.

His only former All Blacks teammate in the Hurricanes line-up, No 8 Rodney So'oialo, also has a point to prove having been granted his first start of the campaign at the expense of Victor Vito.

So'oialo was overworked by the Hurricanes last season, and his form suffered accordingly for the All Blacks as he conceded the No 8 shirt to Kieran Read.

While So'oialo has been eased into action, Tony Woodcock's lax off-season has seen one of the world's leading loosehead props relegated to the bench for the Blues visit to a resurgent Reds on Saturday night.

The front row cornerstone was a notable omission from the starting lineup with coach Pat Lam acknowledging the 61-test prop was struggling for match fitness.

Charlie Faumuina starts at tighthead while John Afoa switches to Woodcock's berth.

The Reds, surprise 41-20 winners over the Crusaders, return to their spiritual home at Ballymore for the first time since 2005 as they seek back-to-back wins for the first time since 2006 - and consign the Blues to a sixth consecutive loss at the venue.

Former Blues and All Blacks flanker Daniel Braid, the Reds vice-captain, finally gets a chance to play his old teammates after missing the corresponding fixture last year through injury.

While the Crusaders and Blues have had their issues during the opening fortnight the unbeaten Chiefs join the Hurricanes as the warmest of favourites with their road-trip ending visit to Perth.

Party to Super rugby's highest scoring match in Johannesburg last weekend - a 72-65 romp over the Lions - the Chiefs are favoured to again run riot against a severely-depleted Force on Saturday night.

Having already banked nine points in South Africa, the Chiefs should continue an uncharacteristic winning start to the season despite missing wing Sitiveni Sivivatu. Lelia Masaga makes his return from shoulder surgery, illustrating the squad's depth.

The winless Highlanders are New Zealand's sole representatives in the Republic, where they face the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein early Sunday - a venue they have fond memories of having won on their last two visits.

Coach Glenn Moore has made five changes to the side edged 19-15 by the Blues at Carisbrook. Southland flanker John Hardie is the notable alteration, the blindside earns his first start against an imposing loose trio featuring Springboks Juan Smith and Heinrich Broussow.

In other matches early Sunday (NZT) the table-topping Bulls should consign the Waratahs to a second straight defeat while the unbeaten Stormers host the Brumbies in Cape Town.

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