PREVIEW: Crusaders, Hurricanes 'mix and match'
PRE-SEASON OPENER: There is an air of excitement ahead of the defending champion Crusaders' pre-season outing against 2016 champions Hurricanes at Rugby Park in Greymouth on Friday.
Not only is it an early glance at the teams, but also the first opportunity to see some of the most exciting young talent in MNew Zealand.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson named Greymouth-born midfielder Tim Bateman as captain for the pre-season opener.
"It's hugely exciting to kick off our pre-season this week against the Hurricanes, and we're humbled by the support we've received already from the people of Greymouth," Robertson said.
"It's been a few years since we last played there so this game is not only fantastic preparation for our season ahead, it's a great opportunity for our squad to connect with the West Coast community who represent some of our most loyal supporters."
The match will also be the first chance for fans to see new 2018 squad members Ethan Blackadder, Billy Harmon, Mike Delany, Braydon Ennor and Jack Stratton in action for the Crusaders, with all five named in the playing group.
Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd, at the start of his final season with the Wellington-based franmchise before heading to Northampton Saints in England, named 32 players in his squad.
Fresh from the squad's five-day camp in Gisborne, Boyd has mixed experience with some newcomers to face the defending champions.
Six-cap Wallaby prop Toby Smith, who has returned to New Zealand after a stint with the Melbourne Rebels, will partner first season front row forward Alex Fidow, who made such an impression for Wellington's in last year's NPC, with Ricky Riccitelli named at hooker.
The experience in the pack is added to with Brad Shields named to start on the side of scrum with the exciting Brayden Iose and Gareth Evans rounding out the loose forward trio.
With the Hurricanes' All Blacks not available for the match there is a chance for a number of players to stake their claim for a spot in the squad ahead of the side's opening Super Rugby competition matches in South Africa and Argentina.
One of those players is Manawatu's Jamie Booth, a member of the Hurricanes wider training squad in 2015, who gets a chance to impress at scrumhalf with Jackson Garden-Bachop starting outside him.
One of the stand-outs for the Hurricanes last season, Matt Proctor, returns from injury and will start at centre while Ben Lam and Jonah Lowe start on either wing.
Boyd said the squad had enjoyed a productive few days in Gisborne where they got to further fine tune some of the work they hope to put in place over the season while they also enjoyed the hospitality of plenty of people in Poverty Bay who were keen to show their support.
He felt the pre-season match against the defending champion Crusaders in the Hurricanes heartland of Waverley had been really beneficial last year and he hoped they would get the same sort of reward from the match in Greymouth.
"It's a great opportunity for a lot of boys in the squad to move from the training field and into a game day situation against real quality opposition," he said.
"We're really pleased with how the squad has come together, they've worked really hard over the last few weeks and are keen to get the season moving forward."
There will be plenty of interest in the performances of some of the players when they are afforded a chance off the bench, including new recruit Ihaia West who has shifted south from the Blues.
Hurricanes: 15 Trent Renata, 14 Jonah Lowe, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Peter Umaga-Jensen, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 9 Jamie Booth, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Brayden lose, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Blackwell, 4 Sam Lousi, 3 Alex Fidow, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements - from: James O'Rielly, Chris Eves, Tolu Fahamokioa, Ben May, Murray Douglas, Will Mangos, Liam Mitchell, Sam Henwood, Finlay Christie, Carlos Price, Ihaia West, Wes Goosen, Jason Emery, Vince Also, Julian Savea, Chase Tiatia, Fraser Armstrong.
Crusaders: 15 George Bridge, 14 Manasa Mataele, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Tim Bateman (captain), 11 Jone Macilai, 10 Mike Delany, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Pete Samu, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Ethan Blackadder, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Hamish Dalzel, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Ezekiel Lindenmuth.
Replacements - from: Harrison Allan, Andrew Makalio, Reuben O’Neill, Ben Morris, Will Tucker, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Tom Christie, Jordan Manihera, Jack Stratton, Brett Cameron, Tima Faingaanuku, Nathan Vella, Dylan Nel, Richard Judd, Dallas McLeod, Tomas Aoake.
Date: Friday, February 2
Venue: Rugby Park, Greymouth
Kick-off: 17.30 (04.30 GMT)
Referee: Brendon Pickerill