The Blues are set to welcome back three key players for the clash against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday.
The match, which kicks off at 7:35pm at Forsyth Barr, will feature the long-awaited return of Sonny Bill Williams, who will make his debut for the Blues from the bench after rupturing his Achilles at the Rio Olympics in August.
All Black Steven Luatua will also return to the side after suspension, which allows coach Tana Umaga to rest Jimmy Tupou who has carried a significant workload in the opening six games.
Outstanding young flanker Blake Gibson is also back to full fitness to resume his openside loose forward role, while 21-year-old All Black Rieko Ioane earns a recall to the starting line-up after an outstanding contribution off the bench in the win over the Western Force last weekend.
“We have missed Steven’s undoubted skills and it also allows Jerome (Kaino) to return to his role at No 6 where he is regarded as the best in the world,” Umaga said. “Rieko is an extraordinary talent and showed his class off the bench to earn his spot back in the starting line-up.”
Auckland lock Scott Scrafton gets his first start at lock to add to the Blues line-up resources after an impressive effort as a replacement last weekend, with Patrick Tuipulotu to come off the bench.
He’s joined on the bench by All Black Ofa Tu’ungafasi, along with Maori All Blacks Billy Guyton and Akira Ioane.
Also coming on to the bench is North Harbour’s Bryn Gatland, who trained with the Blues pre-season and comes off a stint with the Crusaders, filling in for the injured first fives Ihaia West and Stephen Perofeta.
The team is:
1 Pauliasi Manu, 2 James Parsons (C), 3 Charlie Faumuina, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 5 Scott Scrafton, 6 Jerome Kaino, 7 Blake Gibson, 8 Steven Luatua; 9 Augustine Pulu, 10 Piers Francis, 11 Melani Nanai, 12 George Moala, 13. Rieko Ioane, 14 Matt Duffie, 15 Michael Collins.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Unavailable due to injury/suspension: Sam Nock (shoulder), Rene Ranger (ankle), Stephen Perofeta (ankle), Alex Hodgman (calf), Branden Nansen (wrist/hand), Ihaia West (ankle), Declan O’Donnell (concussion).
Photo by Photosport NZ