Steven Luatua returns to the starting XV for Saturday’s must-win match against the Western Force in Perth (kick-off 11.45pm NZT).
The 23-year-old blindside flanker has not featured in the run-on side since round 10 against the Hurricanes after being squeezed out by the in-form Peter Saili, but head coach Sir John Kirwan said it was time to give Luatua an opportunity.
“He’s been away with the All Blacks and he’s come back full of energy and I think he needs an opportunity to push his way back into the side,” Kirwan said.
“We all know he’s got the ability and he’s probably had an average season so far but there’s no doubting the quality of the man so I think it’s a great opportunity for him to really put his hand up, play well, stay selected with us and then really push for The Rugby Championship side with the All Blacks.
“He’s been working really hard with the ABs and he’s come back a bit fitter so it’s a good chance for him.”
Livewire midfielder Francis Saili will make his return from injury via the bench after missing the last four matches with an ankle sprain sustained during training.
Kirwan said Saili would bolster a strong bench which also features wing Tevita Li who re-joins the Blues after a superb campaign with the New Zealand Under 20s at the Junior World Championship.
“It’s really exciting to have Francis back in the football team,” Kirwan said.
“This is a ;throw your dice’ game of football, we can’t really drop another match and if we get up on Saturday it’s going to give us some real momentum so having someone like Francis coming off the bench gives us a real boost.
“He’s trained well, he’s had 40 minutes for the Development Squad last week, he’s done all his contact and he’s jumping out of his skin to get out there.
“That’s the reasoning for selecting Tevita too. He’s had a great Under 20s campaign so having a couple of guys that can do something special for you late when legs are starting to tire really excites us.î
Kirwan has also included all the All Blacks in the starting XV and is hoping they bring their impressive Test form back to Super Rugby level.
“They all really want to play for the Blues so they’re excited about it and we’re looking forward to them bringing their Test form back to us.
“But we also have to realise they’ve just come off a pretty strenuous Test series against a very good England side so we just need to manage them this week and also look after them from a minutes point of view on Saturday.”
Despite being at the bottom of the New Zealand conference ladder the Blues still have a chance of making the playoffs if they win their last three matches, and Kirwan said the team had taken a knockout rugby mentality to the remainder of the season.
“We’ve still got destiny in our own hands and we’ve got to start with this one on Saturday night,” he said.
“It’s a hard ask over there, it’s 11.45pm New Zealand time so we’ve got all the excuses in the world but we’ve been talking about absolutely no excuses.
“We need to pick up from the last game we had which was probably our best performance all season against the Canes and if we’re going to be a contender we actually need to start winning away and getting on a roll so it’s not an easy task but it’s a great challenge for us.”
The Blues team to face the Western Force at nib Stadium in Perth on Saturday night (kick-off 11.45pm NZT) is: