The Blues are looking forward to stepping on to their hallowed home turf of Eden Park for the first time this season in front of a bumper crowd when they take on the Highlanders.
Blues coach Leon MacDonald is pleased to be back home and impressed with his side’s preparations after a disjointed bye week when they were caught out in Wellington following the sudden lockdown in Auckland.
“I am pleased how the whole squad have regrouped back in Auckland under level-2 conditions this week and buckled down to some hard work. Now we know it will be level-1 on Sunday, the team is really fired up to play well for all the people in Auckland and the Blues region who have done it hard.
“Winning at home is critical towards giving us a chance for the title, so the boys need a big home crowd to help bring it blue.”
The Blues are turning Eden Park into a fortress, with the last loss at home over a year ago, and since that game they have amassed a 10-2 winning record in all Super games.
The rivalry with the Highlanders, spurred with the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy at stake, has always been a close encounter. Last year’s thriller at Eden Park resulted in a 27-24 win with Hoskins Sotutu awarded a crucial turnover on the line as the Highlanders swept the length of the field in search of a last-gasp win.
Later in the season, the Blues edged ahead late in the game 32-21 in Dunedin to bring the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy back to Auckland.
Most of the Blues starters from their opening win against the Hurricanes have been named to start against the Highlanders.
The backline is largely unchanged with Jonathan Ruru given the start at halfback while in-form first-five Otere Black will play his 50th Super Rugby game and his 28th at the Blues.
Upfront, replacement hooker Luteru Tolai is rewarded for strong form against the Hurricanes with his first start and fifth cap for the Blues, while exciting 20-year-old lock Sam Darry will make his debut alongside captain Patrick Tuipulotu. The Canterbury player moved north with an impressive palmares as a former NZ Schools and Christs College captain, NZ U20 triallist and Maadi Cup rowing winner.
The All Black props swap out with Ofa Tuungafasi and Karl Tu’inukuafe starting which allows Nepo Laulala and the impressive James Lay to come off the bench.
The Blues team to play the Highlanders is:
15 Stephen Perofeta, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Harry Plummer, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Otere Black, 9 Jonathan Ruru; 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Akira Ioane, 5. Sam Darry, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (C), 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 Luteru Tolai, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Reserves: 16 Kurt Eklund, 17 James Lay, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Tom Robinson, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Tanielu Tele’a, 23 Emoni Narawa.
Players not considered with injury: Soane Vikena (Pec), Ray Niuia (knee), TJ Faiane (foot), Dillon Hunt (concussion), Josh Goodhue (wrist), Finlay Christie (calf), Alex Hodgman (ankle), Blake Gibson (ribs), Jone Macalai (season-ending).