Braydon Ennor will miss the Crusaders’ entire 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, while fellow All Black George Bridge will miss half the season.
Coach Scott Robertson confirmed the statuses of the injured pair on Wednesday, when he announced his 38-man squad, which includes four rookies – Tamaiti Williams, Isaiah Punivai, Chay Fihaki and Fletcher Newell – for a tilt at a fifth straight title.
Midfielder Ennor will be sidelined until the trans-Tasman component of the season while he rehabs the knee he busted in the North v South game in September, but Bridge (chest) should be back for the Crusaders’ round six home game against the Highlanders on April 2.
The same goes for fellow wing Manasa Mataele. Like Bridge, he suffered a pectoral injury in October.
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With the aforementioned trio out of action, Robertson could opt to start Will Jordan at fullback and Leicester Fainga’anuku and Sevu Reece on the wings, moving utility David Havili into the midfield with Jack Goodhue.
“We’re lucky we’ve got some great depth that can come in. It will give other guys opportunities. We have got a lot of guys that can play multiple positions, like Dave Havili and Leicester Fainga’anuku,” Robertson said.
“To win championships, you need depth. With Georgie out, Leicester comes in. There is great competition in all positions. There’s a young [midfielder] Dallas McLeod, who is a year better as well. Depth of our squad is so important.”
All four new Crusaders came through the 11-times champions’ academy, meaning they’ve already trained with the squad in the past.
That bodes well for utility backs Punivai and Fihaki, who could earn opportunities while Bridge, Ennor and Mataele recover.
“They know our week, they know our players. They know our calls. They can just come in and be their best selves and trust themselves,” Robertson said.
The Highlanders attempted to lure Punivai to Dunedin alongside older brother Ngane, who played for the Crusaders in 2019 but moved south this year.
However, Punivai, who in October sealed the first golden-point match in NPC history with a 60-metre intercept try, stayed put.
Born in Lower Hutt, the 20-year-old grew up a “die hard” Hurricanes fan, before moving to Christchurch with his family a decade ago.
“I don’t think I would take a second look now. I call myself a Cantabrian, Canterbury is my home, I feel like I had the majority of my childhood here, this is home for me and this has always been the dream.
“I’ve got to be honest, I did have a few conversations with the guys down at the Highlanders. They were all open and transparent with me and [Ngane]. It was good to get an outside perspective on the situation but, ultimately, this is home. I couldn’t leave.”
Like Punivai and Fihaki, tighthead props Newell and Williams are fresh off their first NPC seasons with Canterbury. All four were members of the Canterbury under-19 team which won the national title last year.
All were on hand at the squad announcement but 140kg prop Williams, who is in camp with the Māori All Blacks this week.
Robertson confirmed desperately unlucky loose forward Ethan Blackadder, who had knee surgery in July, would be available for round one (February 26).
The 28-year-old halfback said the average age of those around him is just 22.
Scott Barrett, who missed this year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign with a foot injury, would again captain the Crusaders.
The bulk of the squad will form in Christchurch on January 11. The All Blacks join them in the second week of February and are available to play one half of the team’s second pre-season game (February 19).
Robertson will announce wider-training squad members in the coming weeks.
Hookers: Codie Taylor, Andrew Makalio, Brodie McAlister
Props: Joe Moody, Michael Alaalatoa, George Bower, Oliver Jager, Tamaiti Williams, Isi Tu’ungafasi, Fletcher Newell
Locks: Scott Barrett (captain), Sam Whitelock, Mitchell Dunshea, Quinten Strange, Luke Romano
Loose forwards: Cullen Grace, Tom Christie, Ethan Blackadder, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Sione Havili, Tom Sanders
Halfbacks: Bryn Hall, Mitchell Drummond, Ere Enari
Inside backs: Richie Mo’unga, Brett Cameron, Fergus Burke
Midfielders: Jack Goodhue, Braydon Ennor, Dallas McLeod
Outside backs: Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, George Bridge, David Havili, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Manasa Mataele, Chay Fihaki, Isaiah Punivai
Departed players: Fetuli Paea (Highlanders), Billy Harmon (Highlanders), Harry Allan (injured), Inga Finau, Ethan Roots