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Rusty All Blacks Add Gloss To Crusaders Derby

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

By Chris Barclay of NZPA

Auckland, Oct 9 NZPA - The mental and physical state of two refreshed All Blacks pose an interesting subplot to the first Air NZ Cup rugby quarterfinal between Canterbury and Tasman in Christchurch tomorrow night.

Brad Thorn's desire to debut for Tasman, the province he has barely set foot in, provided the first twist to the Crusaders derby at AMI Stadium.

Canterbury duly responded when Richie McCaw signalled his availability, the All Blacks captain heeding a virtual SOS call after Japan-bound No 8 Mose Tuiali'i's domestic career was ended by a freak neck injury in Invercargill last weekend.

McCaw and Thorn form the obvious focal point of a clash that Canterbury won easily the last time the teams met -- a 44-15 regular season victory in August.

Since then, Canterbury has rumbled on to record nine consecutive victories while Tasman's board room issues were more prominent until the players came perilously close two weeks ago to making Wellington's first Ranfurly Shield reign in 26 years embarrassingly brief.

Last weekend's five-point haul against Manawatu in Palmerston North confirmed Tasman's first appearance in the playoffs, allowing Thorn to make a "weird" appearance against his "home" province.

Thorn was ordered to rest niggles following the All Blacks Tri-Nations campaign, but Tasman's progression has enabled him to get game time before next month's Bledisloe Cup test in Hong Kong and subsequent Grand Slam attempt.

"It's going to be really weird in a way, against guys like Richie," he said.

"Canterbury have been my club really since I came over in 2001. It'll be a bit funny being in the opposition changing sheds."

Canterbury coach Rob Penney thought Thorn might be conflicted, particularly as he had breezed into a new environment virtually unannounced.

"It'll be interesting for Brad. They haven't had the opportunity to have a team in the quarterfinals yet and Brad comes in and takes a spot," Penney said.

"He'd probably find that quite hard to deal with, I suspect. I wonder if he might be battling with the idea of having to play."

Thorn, however, declared there would be no doubt where his allegiance lay after his only training day in Nelson.

He starts in a rearranged second row alongside Will Crutchley while Alex Ainley switches to blindside for the injured Jack Lam.

"Obviously I won't be holding anything back," the 19-test lock said. "I'll be making sure I get stuck in."

McCaw, meanwhile will be introduced off the bench as captain Kieran Read fills the considerable void Tuiali'i leaves at the back of the scrum. George Whitelock starts on the openside but will make way at some point.

Like Thorn, McCaw has been unsighted since the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup clincher in Brisbane on September 13 so will be similarly underdone, prompting Penney to admit he did not expect miracles.

"He's an intelligent man, he's able to play within the patterns we've got and learn them pretty quickly," he said.

"You can't expect miracles from anybody -- the only thing we can expect from the group is that they try their best."

History suggests McCaw's cameo is no guarantee of success. The belated influx of All Blacks come the playoffs has not translated to title glory for Canterbury since 2004.

In 2006, McCaw's arrival could not prevent a 23-36 quarterfinal loss to Wellington; the season before McCaw, Chris Jack, Aaron Mauger and Daniel Carter could not stop Otago blitzing their semifinal by 15 points.

Still, Canterbury are warm favourites after Penney was able to field his strongest available side -- Paul Williams has recovered from a knee injury while Casey Laulala, Tim Bateman, Isaac Ross, Greg Somerville and Wyatt Crockett are starting after being either benched or rested against Southland.

Like Thorn, Tasman coach Todd Blackadder has no qualms about ending his old province's title hopes. He said regardless of the outcome, the fractured amalgamation between Marlborough and Nelson Bays had made great strides on the park.

"We started the season with 15 players and we've finished up with 24 real good rugby players," he said.

Some are sure to be rewarded when Blackadder unveils his Crusaders squad on October 31.

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