Six All Blacks are included in the Blues squad for their historic clash against the Reds in Apia on Friday night.
It will be the first Investec Super Rugby match in Samoa, and the first major game under lights at Apia Park.
The All Blacks on show include lock Patrick Tuipulotu, the in-form Steven Luatua, captain James Parsons, rising-star Rieko Ioane, and exciting midfielder Rene Ranger, while prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi will come off the bench.
The Blues welcome back two key experienced players in Ranger and loose forward/lock Jimmy Tupou.
Ranger, the six-test All Black, missed last year with an ACL injury and his return this season has been cut short with a serious ankle injury.
Meanwhile, Tupou, who played 37 times for the Crusaders before returning home last year, was a key part of the side both on and off the field before a hamstring injury sidelined him for half of the season.
Both return after strong showings in club rugby.
“We know this is a special game and a special occasion for the Blues to bring a home game to Samoa,” said Blues coach Tana Umaga. “We have a significant number of our club who have heritage in Samoa, including myself, and it is a privilege for so many of our team to return home to play in front of friends and family.
“We hope the Blues fans in Samoa will come and support us on Friday. We saw a full house in Fiji recently for the Super game there and so it would be fantastic to see a packed stadium at Apia Park this week.”
Sione Mafileo and a returning Alex Hodgman have been rewarded for their excellent form against the Chiefs last week with starts in the front row. They join captain James Parsons, Tupou, Steven Luatua, and Kara Pryor in an exciting and mobile loose forward combination.
Youthful Northland pivot Sam Nock makes his first start at halfback to spark a backline where in-form Rieko Ioane – with nine tries this year – forms a dangerous back three with exciting runners Melani Nanai and Declan O’Donnell.
Several players have niggling injuries after a demanding month, which has forced Umaga to sit out Augustine Pulu, Blake Gibson, Matt Duffie and George Moala. Additionally, Sonny Bill Williams has not recovered sufficiently from the knee injury that forced him off against the Chiefs, and Charlie Faumuina has tonsillitis.
However, there is star quality on the bench led by All Black Ofa Tu’ungafasi, the highly impressive Akira Ioane, and exciting first-five Stephen Perofeta.
“It is important for us to respect this game in Samoa with a strong performance,” said Umaga. “We have two games left in the Super Rugby season and we desperately want to continue our progression.
“Also the injuries to some of our regular starters have given us the chance to play some of our exciting young players who have earned their opportunities.”
The match kicks off at 8.35pm local time (7.35 NZ time) at Apia Park and is broadcast live on Sky TV.
The Blues team is:
1. Alex Hodgman, 2. James Parsons (c), 3. Sione Mafileo, 4. Patrick Tuipulotu, 5. Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 6 Jimmy Tupou, 7.Kara Pryor, 8. Steven Luatua; 9. Sam Nock, 10. Piers Francis, 11. Rieko Ioane, 12. TJ Faiane, 13. Rene Ranger, 14. Declan O’Donnell, 15. Melani Nanai.
Replacements: 16. Hame Faiva, 17. Sam Prattley, 18. Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19. Akira Ioane, 20. Murphy Taramai, 21. Billy Guyton, 22. Stephen Perofeta, 23. Jordan Trainor.
Photo by Photosport NZ