The Blues have been bolstered by the return of World Cup winning All Blacks Jerome Kaino and Ma’a Nonu for Saturday’s match against the Cheetahs at Eden Park, with the destructive duo poised to resume their Blues careers from the reserves bench.
Blues head coach Sir John Kirwan said it was fantastic to have the pair back in the team and that they were best suited to starting their first games back off the bench.
“The hard thing for them is to go straight from no rugby into Super Rugby after the other guys have been playing for four weeks and that’s the reason they’re starting off the bench,” Kirwan said.
“It’s important to give them time to get used to the pace and impact of it. But it’s really exciting for us, it’s great to have them back, they’ve both been training really hard and it’s great to finally have them available.”
The Blues bench has also been boosted by the inclusion of veteran lock Hayden Triggs who arrived in Auckland from Japan last month to replace the injured Culum Retallick.
“Losing Culum was a disappointment for everyone in the pre-season but Triggsy has come back from Japan and he’s really excited about his new challenge,” Kirwan said.
“He’s been working hard as well, he’s been here about a month now so he’s ready to go and it will take a bit of a load off Tom (Donnelly) who’s been doing every minute of every game and playing really well for us but we need to give him a bit of a break.”
Kirwan has made six changes to the starting XV that narrowly lost to the Lions last week.
After impressing when he came off the bench, Simon Hickey has been given the nod to start at first five-eighths ahead of Chris Noakes.
“He’s continuing to grow; he’s mature and he handled the situation on tour very well,” Kirwan said.
“I thought he came on and brought a bit of a spark for us. Him and Noakesy are in a real battle for that position and he’s got the nod this week. Noakesy’s not done a lot wrong, I just think Simon is playing a bit better at the moment.”
Jackson Willison replaces Pita Ahki at second five-eighths, while Charles Piutau moves to his favoured position of fullback in place of Benji Marshall who drops to the bench as Tevita Li starts on the left wing.
“The great thing about Benji is he’s really put us under pressure to pick him after last week’s performance,” Kirwan said.
“Charles is an incumbent All Blacks who’s been our form player all year so we just need Benji to keep working on his game and just a little bit more positional play and Tevita brings a nice spark on the wing.”
Despite a brilliant cameo off the bench last week from Bryn Hall, Kirwan has persisted with Piri Weepu at halfback who he believes brings vital experience to partner the young Simon Hickey.
“Piri’s been playing really well for us from a leadership point of view so he’s really driving the football team and the experience he brings for Simon is important.
“Bryn certainly put his hand up big time last week. It was the coming of age for him and I spoke to him yesterday saying we can really trust putting you on and you’re really doing some good stuff for us so he’s pushing for a place which is fantastic…I just think the experience of Piri at the moment is what we need with Simon there.”
Like the Blues, the Cheetahs have only recorded one win this season – a one point victory over the Lions in their opening match of the season.
However Kirwan said it would be foolish to write off the South African outfit who have been playing some good rugby this season.
“They’re a good football side, they were in the top six last year and they’ve got some really key playmakers in their captain and also the 2, 10 and 15 are really class players and they play a good style of footy,” he said.
“They play wide to wide a lot and they get off the ground and run so we’re in for a huge evening. They’ve had a hard tour but they’re certainly not a long way off and last week, although the score flattered the Hurricanes, if you have a look at the game they were right in it and they can score from anywhere.
“It’s going to be a tough evening and it’s must-win for us. There’s a little bit of desperation around the place and we need to put that on the paddock.”
The Blues team to face the Cheetahs at Eden Park this Saturday (kick-off 7.35pm) is: