The All Blacks captain missed the end of the regular season after breaking a rib playing against England in June and returns to reinforce the seven-times champions as they bid to reach an 11th final.
With Matt Todd in such fine form in McCaw’s usual position of openside flanker, the 33-year-old will play on the other side of the scrum in the number six shirt with Jordan Taufua moving to the bench.
All Blacks flyhalf Dan Carter also starts in an unfamiliar position, again lining up at inside centre outside Colin Slade as he continues his return from a six-month sabbatical.
McCaw’s return is one of two changes to the team that beat the Otago Highlanders in the last outing of the regular season with the other coming in the front row where Corey Flynn gets the start at hooker in his 150th game for the Crusaders.
The Crusaders will be looking to avenge their 30-25 home defeat to the Sharks earlier in the season and coach Todd Blackadder is expecting a stiff challenge from Jake White’s team.
“The Sharks have shown this season that they are an extremely classy outfit and a very difficult team to beat,” he said in a media release.
“This is our biggest challenge yet, but we feel ready for it.”
The winners of the match will play the New South Wales Waratahs or ACT Brumbies, who face off in Saturday’s second semi-final in Sydney.
15-Israel Dagg, 14-Kieron Fonotia, 13-Ryan Crotty, 12-Dan Carter, 11-Nemani Nadolo, 10-Colin Slade, 9-Andy Ellis, 8-Kieran Read (captain), 7-Matt Todd, 6-Richie McCaw, 5-Sam Whitelock, 4-Dominic Bird, 3-Owen Franks, 2-Corey Flynn, 1-Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16-Ben Funnell, 17-Joe Moody, 18-Nepo Laulala, 19-Jimmy Tupou, 20-Jordan Taufua, 21-Willi Heinz, 22-Tom Taylor, 23-Johnny McNicholl.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Patrick Johnston)