(Reuters) – Richie McCaw’s likely return to Super Rugby via the Crusaders bench adds spice to Saturday’s playoffs opener with the Queensland Reds, a match offering a sneak preview of Australia’s looming Rugby Championship date with New Zealand.
The World Cup-winning captain made a low-key return to rugby on Saturday after a long sabbatical, playing a full match for Christchurch in a regional club competition.
McCaw declared himself available for selection after shaking off rust in the 22-5 victory over University, where Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder was among the 2,000 spectators.
“He got through the weekend all right and he’s really keen to be involved, so that’s encouraging,” Blackadder told local media in Christchurch on Monday.
Saturday’s clash in Christchurch, the first of two qualifying playoffs in the first week of the postseason, offers a rematch of the 2011 final, when the Reds sealed their maiden title in the southern hemisphere competition with an enthralling 18-13 win at their home Lang Park.
Blackadder said a call on McCaw’s selection would be made as early as Tuesday but poured cold water on the idea of the 32-year-old flanker starting on the field.
“I think it would be silly to put him in that position where he could compromise the team,” he said.
“While he’s mentally tough, he won’t be physically fit to the level that’s required. He’s a quality player and he’s Richie McCaw, of course, but at the end of the day we’ve still got to put this team first.”
New Zealand selectors will also cast a keen eye over McCaw’s fitness, with the knockout match potentially the last chance to survey the All Blacks skipper in battle ahead of the August 17 match against the Wallabies in Sydney.
McCaw’s return on Saturday would also see him on collision course with former Australia flyhalf Quade Cooper, who was branded “Public Enemy Number One” by New Zealand media in the leadup to the 2011 World Cup for taking some alleged “cheap shots” against the hallowed skipper.
New Zealander Cooper irked his country of birth by manhandling McCaw off the ball in a test in Hong Kong in 2010 and added fuel to the fire when his knee made contact with the openside’s head in a Tri-Nations match the following year.
Regardless of McCaw’s selection, Cooper can expect a cool reception in Christchurch as he bids to impress Reds coach Ewen McKenzie, who replaced New Zealander Robbie Deans last week in the wake of the Wallabies’ 2-1 series loss to the British and Irish Lions.
How Cooper copes with the pressure of a hostile crowd against the form team of the Super Rugby competition may go some way to deciding the Wallabies’ flyhalf position for the first test of the Rugby Championship.
A poor match for the 25-year-old may open the door for the ACT Brumbies flyhalf Matt Toomua, who will be desperate to atone after failing to figure in the side’s insipid final-round loss to the lowly Western Force on Saturday.
The Brumbies’ shock defeat in Perth cost them a week off and a home semi-final, and consigned them to a knockout match against the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs at Canberra Stadium on Sunday.
World Cup-winning coach Jake White, who guided the two-times champions into their first playoffs campaign in nearly a decade, said his team could not get “any worse” than their Perth effort.
“But it’s not all doom or gloom,” he said.
“We know we’ve played a lot of good rugby this year… We can’t be worrying about the fact this is going to dent any confidence.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by John O’Brien)