Williams, Fotuali'i & Poki Primed for Crusaders Competition Debuts
Ali Williams, Kahn Fotuali'i and Kade Poki are poised to become Crusader numbers 120, 121 and 122 respectively after being named today to take their places in the franchise's starting line-up for Friday night's Rebel Sport Super 14 match against the ACT Brumbies.
By taking part in the competition opener at AMI Stadium in Christchurch, the trio will etch their names alongside the 119 men who have previously received the privilege of representing the Crusaders.
Two further players, Nasi Manu and Sean Maitland, could also join the Crusaders roll of honour by making their debut before the evening concludes, having being named among the seven man bench.
Adding to the sense of occasion as the 13th Crusade kicks off, night one of the 2008 championship will also herald the 100th appearance as a Crusader by All Black fullback Leon MacDonald.
The 30-year-old, who also played five matches for the Chiefs in 1998, will join Reuben Thorne, Caleb Ralph, Greg Somerville and Justin Marshall as a franchise centurion with the addition of his appearance against the Brumbies.
The match will also feature a return to Super rugby ranks for the first time since 2004 for Brad Thorn, who partners his 2003 All Black Rugby World Cup team-mate Williams in the second row.
The dual international last appeared for the Crusaders in 2004, with the most recent of his 37 matches being that year's tournament final, which was ironically played against this weekend's opposition.
Fotuali'i, who has impressed in all three of the Crusaders' pre-season trials, claims the halfback spot ahead of All Black Andrew Ellis, who has nonetheless capped a rapid return from a pre-season ankle injury by being named among the run on reserves.
Poki, who is one of five Tasman contributions to the starting XV, has won the race to partner Scott Hamilton on the wing ahead of his New Zealand Under-19 team-mate from last year Maitland, although the Canterbury winger also features in the match day squad.
The squad's third national Under-19 representative from last term, Manu, has also been rewarded for his strong pre-season form by being included on the bench, where he will cover the openside and No 8 positions.
Coaches Robbie Deans and Mark Hammett have stuck with a traditional 'four, three' split among the run on reserves, with Deans saying the trial programme had given him confidence they had sufficient options available within the group to cover every on-field eventuality.
"It's been a good preparation and they've all contributed - each and every member of the squad," Deans says.
"There are some guys who have been unlucky to miss selection this time, no doubt about it, but it will be a long and demanding campaign, and they've all got an important role to play."
After playing a cameo 40 minutes last week at the Sydney Football Stadium as he returned from a calf strain, vice-captain Daniel Carter will start in the number 10 jersey, with the exciting Stephen Brett paired outside of him at second-five-eighths.
"We could have got longer out of Dan last week, if we'd needed it, but it was a good hit-out and got him to where we needed him to be ahead of this week," Deans says.
The tournament opener brings together two of the competition's fiercest rivals, with 14 matches having been played previously, with the advantage resting with the Crusaders eight wins to six.
Their history includes three previous finals - in 2000, 2002 and 2004.
The Australians won on two (1996 & 2000) of their first three trips to play the Crusaders, but have subsequently been beaten on each of their last four visits.
Last year, the Brumbies edged out the Crusaders 15-6 in a try-less contest on a night of high emotion in Canberra.
The memory of that night is just one of a number of reasons why Deans has issued a note of caution to his team, and the Crusaders' expectant fans, ahead of the game.
In the corresponding round last year, the Canberra-based side upset the Chiefs 21-15 at Hamilton, stunning a highly-fancied home outfit that had come off a dominant pre-season.
"That was one of the performances of the season, and highlights why they [the Brumbies] are such a dangerous opponent," Deans says.
"They always start well, and they're a very clever side who make the most of their resources. Make no mistake; they'll be a real threat!"
The Crusaders team to play the ACT Brumbies at AMI Stadium, Christchurch on Friday February 15, kick off 7.35pm, is:
15. Leon MacDonald (Canterbury)
14. Kade Poki (Tasman)
13. Casey Laulala (Canterbury)
12. Stephen Brett (Canterbury)
11. Scott Hamilton (Canterbury)
10. Daniel Carter (Canterbury)
9. Kahn Fotuali'i (Tasman)
8. Mose Tuiali'i (Canterbury)
7. Richard McCaw (Canterbury, captain)
6. Kieran Read (Canterbury)
5. Ali Williams (Tasman)
4. Brad Thorn (Tasman)
3. Greg Somerville (Canterbury)
2. Corey Flynn (Canterbury)
1. Ben Franks (Tasman)
Run on reserves:
16. Ti'i Paulo (Canterbury)
17. Wyatt Crockett (Canterbury)
18. Michael Paterson (Canterbury)
19. Nasi Manu (Canterbury)
20. Andrew Ellis (Canterbury)
21. Tim Bateman (Canterbury)
22. Sean Maitland (Canterbury)
Coaches: Robbie Deans, Mark Hammett
Manager: Tony Thorpe
Copyright © Canterbury RFU 2008