Canterbury - The stage is set for Dan Carter and Kieran Read to take command of the Canterbury Crusaders for the final rocky weeks of Super Rugby, but coaching staff are cagey about the duo's prospects of starting against the resurgent Auckland Blues.
All Blacks flyhalf Carter, working his way back after a six-month sabbatical, and number eight Read came off the bench in the second half against the Hurricanes on Saturday but were powerless to stop their side falling to a 16-9 defeat.
The disappointing loss in Wellington has prompted calls for the pair to be thrown straight in against the Blues, who re-ignited their season with a confidence-boosting rout of the Western Force last week.
The All Blacks team mates may be short of match fitness, with IRB player of the year Read having missed much of the season due to concussion-related problems, but Crusaders assistant coach Dave Hewitt said both could play a full game.
“Obviously both of them had a little bit of game time and the two individuals performed pretty well in the limited capacity they had,” Hewitt told local reporters.
“They will both be contention, it's just a matter of what sort of mix we can run with this weekend.
“If required they can play 80 (minutes) but you don't want to drop them straight in the deep end if you don't have to.”
Crusaders fans may beg to differ, however, after witnessing the team struggle to stifle the Hurricanes' rapacious runners.
The Crusaders are third in the competition but level on 42 points with the Otago Highlanders, who they play at home in the last round.
“Debating whether Dan Carter should start for the Crusaders is pointless. Just get him in there,” urged one columnist for Christchurch newspaper The Press.
A head-knock that took flyhalf Colin Slade from the ground against the Hurricanes could make Carter's selection a formality if Slade fails a concussion test, but Read may be more carefully managed after picking up a sore ankle from the match.
Versatile back Israel Dagg, who suffered a knee injury early in the All Blacks' June series against England, may come into calculations.
“Bring him back a week too early and it could mean another eight weeks out, which no-one wants,” Hewett said. “We'll assess him very closely to see if he's available.”