Super Rugby Aotearoa will be the first professional rugby competition in the world to have fans return en-masse in the Covid-19 era when the competition kicks off in Dunedin on Saturday.
The opening round of the competition sees the Highlanders host the Chiefs while the Hurricanes clash with the Blues at Eden Park.
Eden Park will play host to the Hurricanes visit to Auckland on Saturday afternoon, with pre-sales tipping the 35,000 mark. The capacity at Eden Park is a touch under 50,000. The clash is set to attract the biggest crowd to a Blues game at Eden Park in a decade.
The Highlanders v Chiefs matchup is also tracking well, with 16,000 confirmed for Forsyth Barr Stadium. With the capacity set at 23,000, a sell out for the opening game of the revamped tournament on Saturday looks a possibility.
Highlanders v Chiefs
Highlanders Head Coach, Aaron Mauger, has selected two debutants in outside backs Sam Gilbert and Vilimoni Koroi with the former starting on the right wing with the latter on the bench.
In the backs, halfback Brad Weber will captain the side in the absence of Gallagher Chiefs and All Blacks Captain Sam Cane. First five-eighth Kaleb Trask will start at ten with the experienced Aaron Cruden providing cover on the bench. All Black midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown will start at second five-eighth, with rookie Quinn Tupaea named at centre. A familiar back three will start with Sean Wainui on the left wing, Shaun Stevenson on the right and crafty full back Damian McKenzie completing an exciting backline.
The Chiefs bench provides a balanced mix of experience with hooker Bradley Slater joined by Ryan Coxon and veteran Ross Geldenhuys. Rookies Naitoa Ah Kuoi will provide locking cover and Dylan Nel loose forward cover in jersey number twenty. Joining Cruden in an exciting line-up of backline cover will be experienced halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Etene Nanai-Seturo.
Blues v Hurricanes
Ardie Savea and Beauden Barret will both make their his long-awaited returns to Super Rugby, as the Hurricanes get set for Sunday’s clash against the Blues in Auckland.
The Hurricanes will be well aware of the threat Beauden Barrett has on attack while his younger brother Jordie misses the clash through injury.
Bordeaux bound Ben Lam starts on the wing for the Hurricanes with Wes Goosen and Chase Tiatia completing in the back three. Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso link up in the midfield with Jackson Gardon-Bachop claiming the #10 jersey with TJ Perenara his halfback partner.
In the pack, Dane Coles captains the side from hooker with Fraser Armstrong and Tyrel Lomax packing down either side of him. James Blackwell and Scott Scrafton combine in the engine room with Reed Prinsep and DuPlessis Kirifi forming an exciting back row with Gareth Evans.
The Hurricanes bench is stacked with quality with the likes of Alex Fidow, Asafo Aumua, Isaisa Walker-Leawere, Vaea Fifita, Ardie Savea and Billy Proctor all looking to back impact.
Head coach, Jason Holland says his team is raring to go.
“It was the toughest selection for a long time, with very few injuries and most players desperate for an opportunity.”
This a WORLD CLASS XV 🔥🔥 https://t.co/NkhggiIaLl— Ultimate Rugby (@ultimaterugby) June 11, 2020
As for Savea, he has not played a game for the Hurricanes this year, after undergoing knee surgery at the end of 2019.
Whilst he starts on the bench, Holland says it’s great to have the flanker back in the mix.
“Ardie has progressed well and it’s awesome to see him excited about getting back out there.”
Holland says he’s expecting an extremely physical game.
“The team that wins the physical battle and is the most disciplined in the heat of the battle will go a long way to getting a result.”
Blues head coach Leon MacDonald said ‘Competition for selection has been intense throughout a number of positions’.
“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.”