The Blues have named a settled look to their line-up for the all-important final round of Sky Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
They return home to rugby’s sacred home of Eden Park to host the Western Force set for a 7.05pm kick-off on Saturday night.
A win with a bonus point will confirm a home final for the Blues, while a win will likely mean a calculation of points for and against involving the Highlanders, Crusaders and Hurricanes.
The Blues go into the final round one point ahead of the chasing pack and with a healthy points differential in their favour as they face an impressive Western Force squad.
None of this will factor into the side’s thinking this week.
“We have approached this competition by never getting ahead of ourselves. We have focussed on doing the basics well, playing at the right end of the field and defending with equal parts of aggression, pride and accuracy,” said Blues coach Leon MacDonald.
“When we have front-foot ball in the right parts of the field, then that has given our ball-runners options and opportunity.
“We know we are in unchartered waters for this group of men, but we will be stressing that we keep on doing what has been working for us. Keep it simple, be smart, work hard and believe in eachother. Do that and good things should happen.
“We will hope to have a big band of Blues fans on hand at Eden Park to help us Bring it Blue.”
The backline is unchanged with the inside quartet of halfback Finlay Christie, first-five Otere Black, second-five TJ Faiane and centre Rieko Ioane with more than 220 Super caps between them, with Ioane having started in every game this season.
There a mix of youth and experience with 20-year-old fullback Zarn Sullivan and 32-year-old winger Bryce Heem both in superb form.
Upfront Hoskins Sotutu returns to start at No 8 with his fellow All Black mate Akira Ioane to add impact off the bench.
There is another All Black swap in the front row with Alex Hodgman to start at loosehead while Karl Tu’inukuafe will come off the bench. Another All Black prop, Nepo Laulala gets his sixth start at tighthead with Ofa Tuungafasi sidelined with niggling knee and hand ailments.
All Black Patrick Tuipulotu will captain from lock alongside the in-form Gerard Cowley-Tuioti with the standout pairing of Dalton Papalii and Tom Robinson on the flanks.
Meanwhile Josh Goodhue passed his fitness test to be included in the reserves that includes Samoa World Cup hooker Ray Niuia, who will make just his second appearance after rupturing his ACL in the opening game of the 2020 season.
The curtain-raiser is an Auckland 1A college clash between Saint Kentigern College and Mount Albert Grammar, while halftime entertainment includes the superb talents of the Manurewa Intermediate School.
The Blues will again open their gates at Eden Park for families with children free if accompanied by a General Admission ticketholder, with GA tickets for as little as $20.
For tickets: www.ticketmaster.co.nz
The Blues team is:
15 Zarn Sullivan, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Mark Telea, 10 Otere Black, 9 Finlay Christie; 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu (C), 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1. Alex Hodgman.
Reserves: 16 Ray Niuia, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Josh Goodhue, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 AJ Lam.
Players not considered with injury: Tanielu Tele’a (calf), Ofa Tuungafasi (knee). (Season-ending): Jone Macilai, Dillon Hunt, James Lay, Emoni Narawa.