The Blues return to their fortress of Eden Park to host their first Australian opponents in over a year when they meet the NSW Waratahs in the Sky Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition on Saturday.
It is the centrepiece of an exciting afternoon of rugby with the All Blacks Sevens men and Black Ferns Sevens women taking on their respective Australian counterparts both before and after the Super Rugby clash at Eden Park. The Sevens teams are into their final preparations as they countdown to the Tokyo Olympics.
The Blues backline remains unchanged from last week’s win over the Rebels in Melbourne, but there are several changes in the forwards.
Ofa Tuungafasi returns to start at tighthead prop with fellow All Black Nepo Laulala taking a break to mend a niggling ankle injury, while Karl Tu’inukuafe makes his sixth straight start at loosehead after a powerful display last week.
Hooker Kurt Eklund makes his 20th appearance for his blazer game.
Blake Gibson returns at openside with Akira Ioane starting at No 8 in place of Hoskins Sotutu who is rested after starting in every game this season.
There is excitement on the bench with All Blacks Alex Hodgman, Patrick Tuipulotu and Dalton Papalii all returning to action.
The Blues continue to develop their future talent with exciting New Zealand Under-20s outside back, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens to make his debut from the reserves.
“We have some front-row depth that allows us to rotate our starters there, and it is good to see Kurt get his blazer. He is one of the hardest-working players in this team and is stepping up his leadership contribution,” said coach Leon MacDonald.
“I thought both of our locks were excellent last week while Blake has trained well to get another start and Akira likewise was strong and aggressive when he came on, and means Hoskins gets a well-earned break to refreshen.
“We are not buying into the media comments about the competition. Last week our two finalists could have easily been beaten, and while our final scoreline was comfortable, we had a real arm-wrestle for the first half.
“You cannot take any team lightly or you do so at your peril. We have to put in the mahi every day at training and throughout 80 minutes, do the hard yards and play smart. Do that and hopefully some rewards will come and our talented ball-players can show their skills.”
The Black Ferns Sevens and Australia women will kick things off at 3pm on Saturday followed by the All-Blacks Sevens before fans enjoy the first-round clash in Sky Super Rugby Trans-Tasman between the Blues and Waratahs at 4.35pm. The Sevens return to the field for a further round of games with the women at 6.40pm and men at 7.03pm.
The Blues are again opening 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 AJ Lam, 10 Otere Black, 9 Finlay Christie; 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Tom Robinson (C), 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Reserves: 16 Soane Vikena, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Dalton Papalii, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens.
Players not considered with injury: Nepo Laulala (ankle)
Season-ending: Jone Macilai, Dillon Hunt, James Lay, Emoni Narawa.