Blues head coach Leon MacDonald has had his toughest selection job to decide his team for the opening match of the Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa.
MacDonald said ‘Competition for selection has been intense throughout a number of positions’, as the Blues prepare to meet the Hurricanes at Eden Park on Sunday afternoon.
“It has been the hardest team to select in my time here,” said MacDonald. “There are some disappointed players not in the 23 this week. But they will get their chance and we will need them.”
Two-time world player of the year, Beauden Barrett will make his long-awaited debut for the Blues against his former team at fullback, while another former Hurricanes player, halfback Finlay Christie will make his debut off the bench.
Upfront prop Alex Hodgman and Northland lock Josh Goodhue are both fully fit and return to the starting pack that includes All Blacks Ofa Tu’ungafasi and captain Patrick Tuipulotu, with Blues centurion James Parsons at hooker.
The loose forward trio is one of the most competitive selections with Tom Robinson, Blake Gibson and early-season standout Hoskins Sotutu given the start, meaning All Black Dalton Papalii will come off the bench.
The backline has a similar look to pre-Covid-19 times with TJ Faiane and All Black Rieko Ioane again pairing in the midfield outside San Nock and Otere Black. Caleb Clarke returns from New Zealand Sevens to take his place on the left wing to form a potent back three with Mark Telea and Barrett.
There is familiar appearance to the reserves that include utility back Matt Duffie, who will earn his 50th Blues cap if he gets on the field.
“Beauden has fitted in to our team seamlessly and has come in great shape and with real enthusiasm. This week we felt that he can best help us at 15 being his first game for the Blues with a mindset of graduating into the 10 role,” said MacDonald.
“Otere (Black) was one of our best players earlier in the season and guided us well around the field, while Caleb (Clarke) has been outstanding since returning from the Sevens.
“Picking the loose forwards was one of the hardest jobs where we are blessed to have so many quality players.
“The team is naturally excited. This is a special occasion for us all – and something none of us expected, to be playing so soon and in front of our fans. It will be the same for the Hurricanes and I hope we can produce a real spectacle.
“Our good form from earlier this year is a bit irrelevant now. That said the team know that if they put in the quality hard work during the week then they can take some confidence into game day to focus on their execution.
“This is going to be a monumental 10 weeks of local derby battles which will be a battle of attrition, so we will need our whole squad if we are to realise our goals.”
The Blues team is:
15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Otere Black, 9 Sam Nock; 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu ©, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Reserves: 16 Kurt Eklund, 17 Ezekiel Lindenmuth, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Dalton Papalii, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Matt Duffie.
Players not considered with injury: Karl Tu’inukuafe (leg strain), Jack Heighton (quad), Jared Page (pec), Stephen Perofeta (fractured foot). Season ending: Ray Niuia, James Tucker, Tanielu Tele’a.