The Blues have named an unchanged squad to head south in search of the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy in their Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa clash against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Sunday afternoon.
The only change is a swap in the front row where All Black Karl Tu’inukuafe, fully recovered from a niggling hamstring, has his first start in this competition while hard-working Alex Hodgman will come off the bench after six straight starts.
While the Blues share top-of-the-table status on four wins with the Crusaders and Hurricanes, the firm focus is on bringing the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy back to Auckland.
The trophy was established in memory of the late Gordon Hunter, coach of both the Highlanders and the Blues, who he guided in 2000 and 2001. It has been won on eight occasions by the Blues and 10 times by the Highlanders who have had possession for the past eight years. The challenger can only win the trophy at the home of the holder.
“Gordon was a special man who held a special place for both the Blues and the Highlanders, something we are well aware of,” said Blues coach Leon MacDonald.
“We would like nothing more than to take the trophy back to Auckland with us.
“We know that we will need to be at our best to achieve that. Every time we play the Highlanders it is a close affair, as are all the games in this competition.
“We have worked hard again this week and focussed on being more accurate and disciplined at the breakdown but at the same time we want to continue to be physical in the collisions.
“We have to get the job done upfront and give our backs the time and space to show their skills, be both patient as well as capitalise on our chances.”
The Blues are looking forward to playing under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium with the surface suiting their open running style.
MacDonald said that Tu’inukuafe had earned a start with an eye-catching effort off the bench last week and offers a chance for Hodgman to freshen up after some big minutes in this campaign.
The backline is unchanged with Beauden Barrett again at first-five, the exciting three-quarters in Rieko Ioane, Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea have 15 tries between them, and dual international Matt Duffie again at fullback, one of eight Blues starters with more than 50 Super caps to their credit.
MacDonald is looking for a positive and powerful input from the bench later in the game.
The Blues team is: 15 Matt Duffie, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Finlay Christie; 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Dalton Papalii, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu ©, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Reserves: 16 Luteru Tolai, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18. Sione Mafileo, 19 Josh Goodhue, 20 Tony Lamborn, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Otere Black, 23 Harry Plummer.
Players not considered with injury: Jared Page (hamstring), Stephen Perofeta (fractured foot), Tom Robinson (knee), James Parsons (concussion), Hoskins Sotutu (knee), Jared Page (hamstring), Dan Carter (calf). Season ending: Ray Niuia, James Tucker, Tanielu Tele’a.