Promising young first five-eighths Simon Hickey will make his Super Rugby debut when he starts at 10 for the Blues against the Crusaders at Eden Park on Friday night (kick-off 7.35pm).
The New Zealand Under-20 playmaker and Auckland ITM Cup player of the year is in the Blues Wider Training Group but has impressed head coach Sir John Kirwan enough to believe he should be given an opportunity to guide the team.
“We think it’s time to give him a chance,” Kirwan said. “if we want to create internal competition then we need to start that now.”
“He’s had the same pathway as (Aaron) Cruden and he’s got the calmness of Foxy (Grant Fox) so I think he’s a mature young man who’s ready for the next step.
“I’ve got complete faith in him and he’s ready. I told him to just get out there, do what you do and enjoy it.”
20-year-old Hickey is joined by a number of youngsters in the starting XV, with Under-20 teammate Patrick Tuipulotu and 18-year-old wing Tevita Li promoted from the bench to start against the Crusaders.
However the Blues have been bolstered by plenty of experience as veteran All Black centurions Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock are named on the bench.
“It’s fantastic to have our two old heads back and I’m excited for them,” Kirwan said.
“They’re acting like 21-year-olds they’re so excited about it so that’s great and it’s what we wanted to achieve. Just having them there for us with that experience, you can’t put a price on that.
“It’s a big game for us, both teams are under pressure after first round losses and having that experience off the bench to bring a calmness late in the game is going to be critical.”
Sam Prattley replaces Ofa Tu’ungafasi at loosehead prop, while captain Luke Braid who suffered an ankle injury against the Highlanders is bracketed with Brendon O’Connor. A decision on Braid’s fitness will be made later in the week.
With Francis Saili ruled out of action with a foot injury, George Moala shifts into centre as Tevita Li makes his run-on debut on the left wing.
“With Francis out we’ve put our pre-season midfield combination of Jackson and George back together and George has been playing well in both positions. He’s been one of our best so I’m expecting him to show that form again,” Kirwan said.
“We’ve got young Tevita Li on the wing and he’s like Simon, he’s ready and every time he’s come on he’s really impressed us so it’s just about making sure we give those guys a crack.”
Benji Marshall continues his role on the bench where he is joined by Pita Ahki who is poised to make his Super Rugby debut after overcoming a foot injury.
Kirwan said he was hoping for a vocal Blues crowd at Eden Park to cheer his side on in what already shapes as a crucial match before the team departs for South Africa.
“It’s important we get on the plane to Africa with some points. The Crusaders are going to want to win, we’re going to want to win and I think already it’s a huge evening so I’m looking for a very vocal Blues crowd that can help get us over the line.”
The Blues team to face the Crusaders at Eden Park on Friday night (kick-off 7.35pm) is:
15. Charles Piutau
14. Frank Halai
13. George Moala
12. Jackson Willison
11. Tevita Li
10. Simon Hickey
9. Piri Weepu
8. Peter Saili
7. Luke Braid / Brendon O’Connor
6. Steven Luatua
5. Tom Donnelly
4. Patrick Tuipulotu
3. Charlie Faumuina
2. James Parsons
1. Sam Prattley
16. Keven Mealamu
17. Tony Woodcock
18. Angus Ta’avao
19. Liaki Moli
20. Brendon O’Connor / Jordan Manihera
21. Bryn Hall
22. Benji Marshall
23. Pita Ahki