The Blues have turned to their experienced campaigners, refreshened after a week’s break, to host the Highlanders in the DHL Super Rugby Pacific quarterfinal clash at Eden Park on Saturday.
There are 11 players who have played for the All Blacks and two other Māori All Blacks in the 23-strong team to take on their southern rivals.
While the side can draw confidence from their record 13-game winning streak, coach Leon MacDonald said they are under no illusions about the task ahead.
“We have faced a number of games this year that we have treated as must-win tests, but now we are in that situation of winner progresses, and loser ends their season,” said MacDonald.
“We do not want to be constrained by that, but relish and enjoy the challenge that it brings. We have been performance-led this year, and we feel if we play to our potential, that the result will take care of itself.”
He said it was invaluable for his most experienced players to have the luxury of a week off to refreshen, and at the same time had proof that there is quality back-up waiting in the wings after the extra-time victory over the Waratahs.
He has his core front row back in Ofa Tuungafasi and Alex Hodgman with hooker Kurt Eklund, supported in the second row by standout James Tucker and aggressive Tom Robinson and the classy All Black loose forwards in captain Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane and Hoskins Sotutu, who had 19 carries for 92m with one dropped ball in his last clash against the Brumbies.
The backline is sparked by Finlay Christie and quintessential pivot Beauden Barrett, a dangerous midfield in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and the return of the classy Rieko Ioane, with Mark Telea moving to the left wing for the injured Caleb Clarke, with Bryce Heem on to the right wing and the competition’s top scorer Stephen Perofeta at fullback.
The Blues bench has been a significant factor all season, boasting All Black props Karl Tu’inukuafe and Nepo Laulala, the travelling talisman Luke Romano at lock, with Northland’s Sam Nock to earn his 50th cap for the Blues off the bench.
“Our entire focus is on this one game. The Highlanders have an excellent record against us and with nothing to lose, they will come at us hard and can be an extremely dangerous running team,” said MacDonald.
“Quality front-foot ball, playing in the right parts of the field, with accuracy and confidence, both with and without the ball, will provide us with opportunities on the scoreboard.
“We are excited to be at home and to produce a performance of real quality for our fans who we hope will be dressed in a stadium of blue to support us.”
Join the team with free transport included in game tickets and up to two kids free with a paying GA ticket. Auckland Transport is undergoing maintenance on rail. Due to this and a bus drivers’ shortage, fans may experience delays for buses and it is recommended to travel early. Tickets from $20 at Ticketmaster.co.nz.
The Blues team to play the Highlanders is (with Blues caps in brackets):
1. Alex Hodgman (52)
2. Kurt Eklund (35)
3. Ofa Tuungafasi (118)
4. James Tucker (10)
5. Tom Robinson (43)
6. Akira Ioane (92)
7. Dalton Papalii© (55)
8. Hoskins Sotutu (34)
9. Finlay Christie (28)
10. Beauden Barrett (15)
11. Mark Telea (36)
12. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (9)
13. Rieko Ioane (83)
14. Bryce Heem (18)
15. Stephen Perofeta (42)
16. Soane Vikena (13)
17. Karl Tu’inukuafe (40)
18. Nepo Laulala (23)
19. Luke Romano (12)
20. Adrian Choat (17)
21. Sam Nock (49)
22. AJ Lam (18)
23. Zarn Sullivan (17)
Players not considered: Harry Plummer, Anton Segner, Jordan Lay, Tanielu Tele’a, Caleb Clarke.