Richie McCaw, the New Zealand captain, is set to play his first game of the Super 14 season this morning when Canterbury Crusaders welcome the Natal Sharks. McCaw was given special dispensation by the New Zealand Rugby Union to miss the tournament's first two games on extended leave after the autumn internationals. The seven-time champions hope his return will spark them back into form after last weekend's loss to Queensland Reds, a defeat Dan Carter describes as "pretty tough to take".
McCaw was a frustrated spectator and he said: "I started to watch the last few weeks and wish I was out there and that's the way it should be every time. That's a good sign," McCaw said. McCaw returns to a Canterbury team which is significantly changed from the one which lost 40-21 to Queensland in Brisbane. Wyatt Crockett, the prop, and Brad Thorn, the lock, will both start for the first time this season but Isaac Ross, their All Blacks teammate, has been ruled out of the match with an ankle injury.
The Sharks also make changes in the wake of their upset last week when they went down 25-20 to compatriots the Free State Cheetahs. Johan Muller, the Springboks lock, returns from injury while captain John Smit will start at tight-head prop and Bismarck du Plessis at hooker. Andy Goode, the former England fly-half who has been loaned to the Sharks by Brive, will start on the bench. The Cape Town Stormers host the CA Brumbies looking for only their second win over the Canberra franchise in 12 matches.
"Our defence has always been outstanding," said Allister Coetzee, the Stormers coach. "It has always been a key thing for the Stormers side It is important to maintain it and improve on it." * With agencies Canterbury Crusaders v Natal Sharks, 10.35am, Showsports 3Cape Town Stormers v CA Brumbies, 9.10pm, Showsports