Super Rugby Pacific: Sam Whitelock's return boosts Crusaders as final showdown against Chiefs looms

The Crusaders have been dealt a huge boost to their Super Rugby final hopes, with Sam Whitelock named to start for the defending champions.

Whitelock's been under a major injury cloud since injuring his Achilles tendon in their final round robin game and while he'll need to prove his fitness on gameday, his perfect Crusaders farewell remains alive. 

The veteran lock was back in the gym and moving freely on Thursday, his Achilles off ice. 

The Crusaders stalwart has been named for his 178th and final appearance for the club, before a move to France in 2024.

"He's seen it," said coach Scott Robertson. "He's a calm influence, so he's important to this group.

"We're pleased he's available."

Whitelock, 34, got through both the gym and field session, and will be given until kickoff to ensure he's right to go.

"The way he still plays and trains just sets such a high standard and high bar that we all live by," added Robertson. "He means a lot to us."

While the Crusaders look likely to welcome back a key All Black, the Chiefs' newest one has been relegated to the bench. Clayton McMillan has opted for a sentimental selection, with the departing Pita Gus Sowakula preferred over Samipeni Finau in the No.6 jersey.

"We often talk about how much we care about people," he said. "One way of showing that is giving a person like that, who's been a great servant of the Chiefs, the opportunity to run out as a starter."

Inside Chiefs HQ, memories of their previous two titles are on display - along with hope for their next. The challengers are dialled in, with a laser focus on ending the Crusaders winning run. 

"We feel like it's our time," said McMillan.

A big part of that, will be their Hamilton homeground advantage. The Crusaders know what they're walking into. 

"It's going to be hostile," said Robertson. 

"It can be quite intimidating at times," added halfback Mitchell Drummond. 

"Reasonably hostile," concurred fullback Will Jordan.

Sam Whitelock celebrates.
Sam Whitelock celebrates. Photo credit: Getty Images

The Chiefs will take any advantage they can.

"The cowbells won't be the difference, but they'll certainly make a difference," said McMillan.

Clearly not to Crusaders captain Scott Barrett, born and bred in Taranaki.

"There were no cowbells on our farm," he joked. "Dad got the bolt cutters out, cut that thing down the middle and biffed it."

Barrett and the Crusaders will hope they can silence the cowbells once more, as Super Rugby's heavyweights get ready for a title deciding showdown.

Join Newshub at 7pm Saturday for live updates of the Chiefs v Crusaders Super Rugby Pacific final