Buoyed by plenty of positives over the last few weeks, the Blues have named a largely unchanged team for what they hope will be the first in a flourishing final three regular-season games against the Bulls at Eden Park on Friday.
Coach Leon MacDonald has retained virtually the same starting line-up that produced an impressive defensive effort in the loss to the competition-leading Crusaders in Christchurch.
He wants to see the same level of commitment and convert their attacking chances on Friday.
“We want to show our fans a top-quality performance. While it is our last regular competition game at home, we would love to be back here in the playoffs,” said MacDonald.
“We’ve done a lot of things well in recent weeks and we have trained impressively. We are ready to produce a complete performance, and there’s no better opportunity than at Eden Park in front of our fans, friends and family.”
The backline remains unchanged for the third straight game, with one change in the forwards where centurion James Parsons returns from injury to start at hooker.
The resilient 23-year-old No 8 Akira Ioane will make his 32nd straight start, virtually all with 80-minute performances, with All Black Dalton Papalii not recovered 100 percent from a head knock.
“Akira has worked hard on improving his game this year and he has been such a work-horse for us, especially early on when we had injuries with the loose forwards,” said MacDonald. “We have to remember he is still a very young man and we had initially looked to lighten his load and bring him off the bench this week.
“But while Dalton is very close to full fitness, we did not want to take any risks and will keep him back until next week. We know Akira will put in another big effort for us.”
Ioane will link with co-captain Blake Gibson and impressive rookie Tom Robinson in a potent back row.
MacDonald said the side is not watching the Super Rugby table, but rather fully focussed on the remaining three regular-season games.
“We are taking them one at a time and want to finish each really strongly. Then we add up the points and see if we continue into the post-season playoffs.”
The Blues team is: 1 Alex Hodgman, 2 James Parsons, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 5 Scott Scrafton, 6 Tom Robinson, 7 Blake Gibson ©, 8 Akira Ioane; 9 Jonathan Ruru, 10 Harry Plummer, 11 Rieko Ioane, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 13 TJ Faiane, 14 Caleb Clarke, 15 Melani Nanai.
Reserves: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Lua Li, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Hoskins Sotutu, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Otere Black, 23 Tanielu Tele’a
Players not considered with injury: Sione Mafileo (ankle), Stephen Perofeta (pectoral), Jordan Trainor (thigh), Sonny Bill Williams (knee), Michael Collins (groin), Karl Tu’inukuafe (illness), Sam Nock (hand), Matt Moulds (hand), Jed Brown (hamstring), Jimmy Tupou (calf), Dalton Papalii (concussion).