Three debutants and nine All Blacks are included in the Blues line-up to travel to Wellington for Saturday’s first round of the Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa against the Hurricanes.
Both starting props will make their debuts in All Black Nepo Laulala and Auckland’s James Lay, as well as Auckland loose forward Adrian Choat who is in the reserves.
There are seven All Blacks in the starting line-up with the powerful pairing of Karl Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tuungafasi to come off the bench.
Captain Patrick Tuipulotu will make his 81st appearance for the club, to move to 13th on the all-time list for the Blues and is now the second most capped current Blues player behind Ofa Tuungafasi.
Lay, who spent two years playing for Pat Lam’s outstanding Bristol Bears side in United Kingdom, has gelled well in pre-season training.
“James knows what professional rugby is about and has impressed us with Auckland this season. He is a top guy and we know he can do a good job for us,” said head coach Leon MacDonald.
“Likewise Nepo came in after the All Black break and has fitted seamlessly into our environment and into our systems.
“Adrian had an excellent Mitre-10 Cup competition and came in as a replacement and was really energetic in our pre-season. He is a smart and versatile loose forward.”
MacDonald said the coaching group had some tough selection choices including the likes of the well-performed Josh Goodhue and the ever-present Tom Robinson to come off the bench.
“We also have several players who have trained well and could have played but they will get their chance. We want our bench to be a real asset for us and make a difference, so they have an important role to play.
“We’re pleased with the hard work put in during pre-season and how they handled the lockdown disruption. And we have prepared quite well this week. That said, pre-season does not count for anything and often does not tell the full story.
“This is going to be a massive challenge for all teams in Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa. Both us and the Canes have some big aggressive forwards and strong running backs, so this game should be an absolute thriller.”
The Blues follow their away game in Wellington with a bye next week before preparing to “Bring It Blue” to Eden Park for their first home game against the Highlanders on Sunday 14 March.
The Blues team to play the Hurricanes is:
Players not considered with injury: Soane Vikena (Pec), Ray Niuia (knee), TI Faiane (leg), Dillon Hunt (concussion), Finlay Christie (leg), Alex Hodgman (ankle), Blake Gibson (ribs), Jone Macalai (season-ending).