A number of experienced campaigners return to the Blues starting XV for Saturday night’s heavyweight clash with the Crusaders in Christchurch.
102 Test veteran Keven Mealamu has overcome a calf strain to start at hooker, while Culum Retallick and Luke Braid also return to bolster a powerful forward pack.
“Kevvie’s great, he got through training and he’s the best we’ve seen him so he’s in good shape,” Blues head coach Sir John Kirwan said.
“I think Luke is really on top of his game. He was in a situation where we needed to give him some time out of the game last week and it was the same with Culum. They’ve both come back in and I think they’ve been having defining seasons and deserve to be back out there.”
Despite being named in the All Blacks Wider Training Squad earlier this week, second five-eighths Francis Saili makes way for Jackson Willison who is back to full fitness after suffering an ankle sprain against the Queensland Reds in round 11.
“Jacko gives us a little bit more voice and experience out there, and then we can bring Ces (Francis) on late in the game and really break it up,” Kirwan said.
“It’s difficult for him because he played well in attack last week but we think Jackson just provides a bit of steadiness in the midfield.”
Prop Sam Prattley, called into the squad midway through the season to replace the injured Charlie Faumuina, will have the chance to make his Blues debut after being named on the bench in place of Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
James Parsons has failed to shrug off a neck injury and will sit this week out as Quentin MacDonald is named as the reserve hooker.
It has been nine years since the Blues last defeated the Crusaders in Christchurch, and Kirwan said it was time to put an end to that disappointing record.
“They deserve everything they’ve had,” Kirwan said of the Crusaders.
“They’ve been a fantastic franchise and have led the way for many of us and now it’s time for us to get down there and earn some respect back and to do that we need to play for 80 minutes and be in a real battle.
“For me it’s a Test match and that’s how it should be. I can’t wait, I’m really excited and the players are excited too. We’re underdogs, going down there with everything against us – it doesn’t get any better than that.”