Patrick Tuipulotu (capt),
Reserves: Kurt Eklund, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Tom Robinson, Adrian Choat, Finlay Christie, TJ Faiane.
Bryce Heem was a late addition to the Blues for 2021, but potentially a valuable one if his appearance on the right wing to face the Crusaders on Sunday is anything to go by.
Coach Leon MacDonald has made five changes to his starting XV for the top-of-the-table clash against the champion Crusaders at Eden Park, two as a result of injury, two featuring players returning from the medical ward and another as part of the regular rotation of his world-class propping contingent.
The Blues, who have won both their matches so far in 2021, lost openside flanker Dalton Papalii and right wing Mark Telea to head knocks suffered in last Sunday's 39-17 victory over the Highlanders.
The experienced Blake Gibson, back from a rib injury, slots in for Papalii in a like for like change that should not see the Blues lose too much at No 7. “Blake was nearly ready to go last week,” said the Blues coach. “We knew we would need Blake with Dalton doing some big minutes, and it just so happens Dalton is injured ... but Blake would have been involved in some capacity anyway. His timing was good.”
Heem is perhaps more of a surprise as a replacement for the in-form Telea. The 32-year-old returned to New Zealand earlier this year after getting an early release from his commitments with Toulon in France. He has played his Kiwi provincial rugby for Auckland, Northland and Tasman, was a New Zealand sevens regular and had a season with the Chiefs before heading offshore at the end of 2015.
“That was a really tough decision," said MacDonald of Heem's inclusion as a starter. “We had a lot of guys putting their hands up there, but Bryce gives us a bit of experience, he's a big body, is fast, has a big workrate and we think an older head out there in the cauldron is going to be useful.”
Josh Goodhue returns as starting lock, after a week out with a wrist injury, with youngster Sam Darry dropping out of the 23 after a promising debut against the Highlanders.
“Josh was probably just OK to go last week but we gave him an extra week to make sure he was ready for this game. He's in good nick and is excited about the opportunity,” added MacDonald.
The other two starting changes come in the front row, with fit-again All Blacks prop Alex Hodgman starting at loosehead and national team-mate Nepo Laulala getting the nod at tighthead this week, with Karl Tu'inukuafe and Ofa Tu'ungafasi spearheading a powerful home bench.