The Blues are determined to finish their Investec Super Rugby season with a flourish against the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday.
They welcome back All Blacks Rieko Ioane and Patrick Tuipulotu after their final All Blacks stand-down last week in their agonising one-point loss against the Reds.
Tuipulotu will join with Scott Scrafton in the middle row while upfront the experienced James Parsons will play his 106thgame for the Blues, elevating him to fourth in overall Blues history behind Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock and Jerome Kaino.
He will be flanked in the front row by the in-form Alex Hodgman and Marcel Renata, who gets his first start against the team he played for last year. Renata replaces All Black Ofa Tuungafasi, who has his final stand-down after some outstanding form in the last month.
The same dynamic backrow starts again in captain Blake Gibson, Dalton Papalii and Akira Ioane, who makes his 35thstart in a row, virtually all of them the full 80 minutes. The resilient 23-year-old will earn his 65thcap for the Blues, having played in every game for the past three seasons
Augustine Pulu, who scored two tries and had a third controversially ruled out, is rewarded with another start, his 87thSuper cap and 37thand final game for the Blues before heading to Japan. He is partnered inside first-five Otere Black.
There is a new midfield with Sonny Bill Williams making a return from a knee injury, having last played against the Waratahs in round seven. He will partner 20-year-old Tanielu Tele’a, who has impressed on the wing in his rookie season. Tele’a moves to his more accustomed midfield role alongside Williams, with TJ Faiane, who has started in every game, out with a hand injury.
The Blues back three is reunited with Rieko Ioane playing his 49th game for the Blues. Caleb Clarke returns from injury and Melani Nanai, who joins Akira Ioane as the only players to start in every game this year, is at fullback for the final time before he heads to the UK.
It means Ma’a Nonu, who has been such an influential player this year, will add his energy off the bench.
“Clearly last week was gutting for the whole team but it’s important we put that behind us and focus on this opportunity,” said coach Leon MacDonald. “We played some excellent rugby last week and some not-so-good, so we know that a complete performance is within our grasp.
“We owe it to ourselves, after a season of such hard work and dedication, to enjoy the opportunity to execute like we know we can.”
The Blues team is: 1 Alex Hodgman, 2 James Parsons, 3 Marcel Renata, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 5 Scott Scrafton, 6 Dalton Papalii, 7 Blake Gibson ©, 8 Akira Ioane; 9 Augustine Pulu, 10 Otere Black, 11, Caleb Clarke, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 13 Tanielu Tele’a, 14 Rieko Ioane, 15 Melani Nanai.
Reserves: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Ezekiel Lindenmuth, 18 Hisa Sasagi, 19 Tom Robinson, 20 Josh Goodhue, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Ma’a Nonu.
Players not considered with injury: Sione Mafileo (ankle), Stephen Perofeta (pectoral), Jordan Trainor (thigh), Michael Collins (groin), Karl Tu’inukuafe (illness), Sam Nock (hand), Matt Moulds (hand), Jed Brown (hamstring), Jimmy Tupou (calf), TJ Faiane (hand)