Blues head coach Sir John Kirwan has made seven changes to the starting XV for Friday night’s crunch match with the Hurricanes at Westpac Stadium.
Fresh off the bye, the Blues welcome back a number of key players from injury including veteran hooker Keven Mealamu who forms an all-All Blacks front row alongside Tony Woodcock and Charlie Faumuina. “It’s great to welcome Kevvie back,” Kirwan said. “He’s had just 20 minutes for us this season so it was a decision as to whether we brought him off the bench or just threw him out there and I think he’s got the experience and the fitness to be able to start. He’s 100 per cent so we’ll just get him out there from the start.”
Locks Patrick Tuipulotu and Tom Donnelly have also overcome injuries to form a strong second row, while captain Luke Braid returns to the starting XV after coming off the bench against the Brumbies. Steven Luatua shifts from number eight to his preferred position of blindside flanker, trading places with the abrasive Jerome Kaino who bolsters the back of the scrum. “Jerome gives us a little bit more experience and control at eight,” Kirwan said.
“I think we’re talking two very similar players but one’s a bit younger and a little less experienced and one’s a bit older with a wiser head so they’re both great athletes and ball runners. “Jerome’s really bringing us some edge defensively and I think his decision making around the base of the scrum is what we need against the Canes.” In the backs, Chris Noakes has been given the nod to start at first five-eighths ahead of youngster Simon Hickey who drops out of the match day 23.
“Simon has played well for us and had a good run but I think Noakesy’s the best man for the job against the Hurricanes,” Kirwan said. “I think his tactical kicking game and tactical awareness at this stage is what we need against the Hurricanes. Simon is tracking really well and it was a big learning curve for him against the Brumbies so for us it’s about getting the right horses for the right courses.”
All Blacks Ma’a Nonu and Francis Saili feature in a powerful midfield combination, while livewire winger Lolagi Visinia will make his first start of the season in place of Frank Halai. “Lolagi played well for us late last year and he’s a very good young player, we think he’s going to be a special athlete,” Kirwan said.
“He’s been our best performers for the development squad and the message is if you play well for the development squad you’re going to get your opportunity and that’s what we’ve done, we’ve given him an opportunity to prove himself.”
Kirwan said not understating the significance of Friday night’s match in Wellington. “I don’t think it gets bigger than this from a season point of view. I think if you spoke to Mark Hammett he’d say exactly the same – this is a pivotal game in a pivotal season and I think there are a couple of games this weekend that are really exciting and ours is one of them.”
The Blues team to face the Hurricanes at Westpac Stadium on Friday night (kick-off 7.35pm) is:
15. Charles Piutau, 14. George Moala, 13. Francis Saili, 12. Ma’a Nonu, 11. Lolagi Visinia, 10. Chris Noakes, 9. Bryn Hall, 8. Jerome Kaino, 7. Luke Braid (C), 6. Steven Luatua, 5. Tom Donnelly, 4. Patrick Tuipulotu, 3. Charlie Faumuina, 2. Keven Mealamu, 1. Tony Woodcock
16. James Parsons, 17. Sam Prattley, 18. Angus Ta’avao, 19. Liaki Moli, 20. Brendon O’Connor, 21. Jamison Gibson-Park, 22. Benji Marshall, 23. Frank Halai