New Zealand Test centurion Beauden Barrett will have his first start of the season for the Blues when they host the Highlanders at North Harbour Stadium on Friday in Super Rugby Pacific.
After coming off the bench in the 24-22 win over the Chiefs last weekend, Barrett gets to start at fly-half with another highly experienced campaigner in Bryce Heem outside him in the number 12 jersey.
The duo come in for the injured inside back pairing of Harry Plummer and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, with both sidelined for several weeks with shoulder injuries.
Blues coach Leon MacDonald said he is looking for a much-improved performance from his side.
“We played quite well against the Hurricanes and lost but we played indifferently last week and got the win. It shows that you can’t control the outcome, but you can control performance,” he said.
“We are looking for quantum improvement across the board – better quality possession, better handling, more consistent defensive effort and better decision-making. Most of all, we are looking for a more aggressive, physical and quality performance.”
While losing Plummer and Tuivasa-Sheck, MacDonald is pleased to have Barrett and Heem available.
“Despite being out of the game for a while, Beauden slotted back in as we know he can,” he added.
“Bryce has had a niggling injury that delayed his start. He was one of our key players last year, and while he played on the wing, he has plenty of experience in the midfield both for me at Tasman and in Europe. His experience and physicality are key factors.”
MacDonald has rested the hard-working Josh Goodhue and Tom Robinson who have played two full games.
“Josh has been beaten up in two outstanding efforts and Tom is batting an ankle injury that has hampered him,” explained the coach.
“Sam Darry and Taine Plumtree are two young guys who both had outstanding NPC campaigns, and are itching for their opportunity.
“It means that James Tucker, another player who was terrific in the NPC, has the potential for his first cap for the Blues after an injury in pre-season meant he never got to play for us a few years back.”
Blues: 15 Stephen Perofeta, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Bryce Heem, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii (c), 6 Taine Plumtree, 5 Sam Darry, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1 Alex Hodgman
Replacements: 16 Soane Vikena, 17 Ofa Tuungafasi, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 James Tucker, 20 Adrian Choat, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Tanielu Tele’a, 23 Zarn Sullivan
Date: Friday, March 11
Venue: North Harbour Stadium, Albany
Kick-off: 19:05 local (06:05 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Paul Williams (New Zealand), Stu Curran (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)