After a shaky start to the season, Colin Slade has grown into his role at the Crusaders, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
Slade returned to Christchurch following Dan Carter's announcement of his six-month sabbatical, and originally struggled to step out of the shadow of the All Blacks legend.
As his fortunes have changed, so have the teams, and the Crusaders look every bit the play-off contenders they were touted to be, while Slade is even starting to resemble a possible Test starter for the All Blacks.
Beauden Barrett and a fit-again Aaron Cruden will likely be ahead of him in the pecking order, but if he continues to put in performances like he did last week against the Highlanders, then he may just be able to force his way into a black jersey.
The Force were made to work hard for their bonus-point win over the Lions in Perth last week and have never won a game against Crusaders in Christchurch.
The battle is likely to be won at the breakdown, where the Crusaders have have conceded fewer penalties (9.4) and their opponents have won the fewest turnovers won on average (5.9) than any other team this season. Meanwhile, the Force have managed to produce more turnovers on average per game (16.7) than any other team. The match-up between Richie McCaw and Matt Hodgson could prove key to the outcome here.
The Crusaders were given a massive boost on Monday with news that their captain Kieran Read has recovered from the concussion that has kept him out for a number of weeks to take his place in starting XV.
The Force, meanwhile, have made two changes to the side that saw off the Lions in Perth. Brynard Stander replaces the injured Ben McCalman, with Angus Cottrell shifting to the No 8 jumper. In the backline utility back Patrick Dellit replaces Luke Burton, who is on duty with the Australian U20s, while Chris Tuatara-Morrison shifts to inside centre.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Crusaders 4, Force 2, Draw 1
In Christchurch: Crusaders 2, Force 0, Draw 1
SLADE'S STATS THAT MATTER
148 – The number of points he's scored this season (Rank 3)
79 – The number of kicks he's made from hand (Rank 17)
4 – The number of tries he's scored (Rank 19)
Source: Vodacom Rugby Stats App
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Tom Taylor, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Tim Perry.
Subs: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Owen Franks, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Adam Whitelock, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.
Force – 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Patrick Dellit, 12 Chris Tuatara-Morrison, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Angus Cottrell, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Brynard Stander, 5 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.
Subs: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Ollie Hoskins, 19 Adam Coleman, 20 Ryan Hodson, 21 Justin Turner, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Dillyn Leyds.
Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images