Michael Hobbs has edged out All Black star Piri Weepu and young gun Gareth Anscombe to start at first five-eighths for the Blues in their season opener against the Crusaders at Eden Park on Friday night (kick-off 7.35pm).
Just 18 months after having career threatening back surgery where he had screws inserted into his spine, Michael Hobbs finds himself thrust back into the limelight of Super Rugby and tasked with orchestrating the Blues backline in one of the biggest matches of the year.
The 24-year-old, who made his Super Rugby debut for the Blues in 2009 before joining the Highlanders in 2010, admitted it was surreal to find himself back in a Blues jersey after contemplating a life without rugby.
“You’re obviously nervous and it’s a big occasion but at the same time I’m trying to look at it as being an awesome opportunity and one that I wasn’t sure I was ever going to get again,” Hobbs said.
“To go out on the opening night of the Super Rugby season against the Crusaders at Eden Park, there aren’t many more special occasions than that.”
Head coach Pat Lam said Hobbs had shown fine form during the pre-season and deserved to have the first crack at 10 as Piri Weepu provides cover on the bench.
“Michael Hobbs impressed in the last game and throughout the pre-season and he’s in great nick so he will start at 10,” Lam said.
“There was really good competition for the number 10 jersey and Piri showed his class but at this stage we feel it is best to bring him off the bench.”
Lam has made a number of interesting selections for Friday night’s blockbuster showdown, not least starting hooker Tom McCartney at loosehead prop in the absence of All Black Tony Woodcock.
It will be McCartney’s second start in the number one jersey where he faces a fierce test from one of the world’s best scrummaging practitioners in Ben Franks, but Lam said he was more than up to the challenge.
“Scrummaging is only part of it but one thing about Tom is that as well as being a good scrummager his workrate is phenomenal and what he does around the park is excellent so he gives us another dimension with his attack and defensive work and he deserves his place in the team.”
Elsewhere in the forwards, Jerome Kaino has overcome a scratched eye to bolster the back of the pack at number eight, while Chris Lowrey has impressed with his pre-season performances to start at blindside flanker.
“Chris Lowrey has done a lot of work in the off-season and the conditioning that he has done has meant he’s in the best nick ever,” Lam said.
“He’s played some very good games for us during the pre-season and thoroughly deserves his spot in a very competitive position. He brings his lineout ability, his read on defence at the moment is very good and his ball carrying is also very strong. It all comes back to the commitment he’s put in through the pre-season and I’m looking forward to him doing well.”
With Luke Braid managing just 40 minutes of rugby during the pre-season following surgery over the break, older brother Daniel Braid gets the first shot at making the number seven jersey his own.
“In the end Luke made it an easy decision for me to select which Braid to play by not being ready until last week after coming back from surgery and Dan’s been training right through pre-season,” Lam said.
“It’s fair to say that Luke had a great season with us last year and was deservedly named the Players’ Player of the Year and that was on the back of Dan getting injured. That was also on the back of Dan doing a lot of work with him and the sacrifices that Luke made.
“We know what Dan Braid can do, he’s an All Black and I’ve spent a lot of time with him and I admire what he does. It’s great that the two of them are close and no doubt throughout the year they’re going to be bouncing off each other. So in the end it was a tough decision made easier by the fact that Luke’s just coming back from injury.”
In the backs, North Harbour livewire David Raikuna will make his Super Rugby debut and become Blues player number 185 after a stellar final pre-season hit-out against the Highlanders.
“In the highly competitive outside backs, David Raikuna has put his hand up first. He had a very good game against the Highlanders so he’s earned his spot on the right wing. With Sherwin Stowers getting injured in the Rebels game it has given David the chance to start and take the opportunity in a big game.”
Rudi Wulf has also been in sensational pre-season form and will start on the left wing as Rene Ranger moves into his favoured position of centre, joining Benson Stanley in the midfield.
On the bench, Brad Mika is poised to make his first appearance for the Blues since 2005 and forms an experienced bench alongside Piri Weepu, Luke Braid and Tevita Mailau.
With George Moala and Lachie Munro unavailable due to injury and Ma’a Nonu still in Japan, the door has been opened for Auckland midfielder Hadleigh Parkes to make his first appearance for the Blues off the pine.
The Blues team to face the Crusaders at Eden Park on Friday night is: