There’s a new mix of power and excitement in the Blues team for Thursday’s Super Rugby opener against the Rebels in Melbourne.
The front five, with only 19 Blues caps between them, have impressed in their pre-season win against the Chiefs last week. While they may have a handful of Blues appearances, two of them are proven performers with prop Pauliasi Manu and new captain Jimmy Tupou boasting 91 Super Rugby appearances between them.
Manu, who returns to the Blues after four years at the Chiefs, anchors a scrum with North Harbour prop Sione Mafileo and Northland captain Matt Moulds, who gets a start after an apprenticeship behind All Blacks Keven Mealamu and James Parsons.
Tupou, with 37 appearances for the Crusaders, takes over the reins as captain in his first outing for the Blues, with co-captains Parsons and Jerome Kaino not considered for selection this week.
The front five started well against the Chiefs, with coach Tana Umaga looking for a go-forward platform from his pack to provide a foundation for a young backline.
Tupou’s co-captain at Counties-Manukau, Augustine Pulu, also makes his Blues debut after 51 caps for the Chiefs and playing for the All Blacks Sevens side last year.
Ihaia West, Piers Francis, Melani Nanai and Matt Duffie were backline regulars last year, while young All Black Rieko Ioane starts at his preferred spot as centre, with Otago’s Michael Collins, another to impress in pre-season, making his Super Rugby debut at fullback.
There are three All Blacks in the Blues’ reserves in Charlie Faumuina, George Moala and the explosive Rene Ranger, back after a long-term ACL injury last year.
Players not considered for selection include Parsons, Kaino, Patrick Tuipulotu, Billy Guyton, Declan O’Connell, Stephen Perofeta and Sonny Bill Williams.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Jimmy Tupou (c), 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 Matt Moulds, 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Sam Nock, 22 George Moala, 23 Rene Ranger
Date: Thursday, February 23
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Kick-off: 19:45 local (08:45 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Ben O'Keeffe, Will Houston
TMO: Ian Smith