All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams has been named in the Blues’ starting line-up for their derby with the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday.
The Blues are determined to finish their Super Rugby season with a flourish and Williams makes his return to action after recovering from a knee injury sustained in the clash with the Stormers at Eden Park on March 30.
The Auckland-based franchise also welcome back fellow internationals Rieko Ioane and Patrick Tuipulotu after their final All Blacks stand-down last week in their agonising one-point loss against the Reds.
Tuipulotu will join with Scott Scrafton in the second-row while up front the experienced James Parsons will play his 106th game for the Blues, elevating him to fourth in overall Blues history behind Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock and Jerome Kaino.
He will be flanked in the front-row by the in-form Alex Hodgman and Marcel Renata, who gets his first start against the team he played for last year. Renata replaces All Black Ofa Tuungafasi, who has his final stand-down after some outstanding form in the last month.
The same dynamic back-row starts again in captain Blake Gibson, Dalton Papalii and Akira Ioane, who makes his 35th start in a row, virtually all of them the full 80 minutes. The resilient 23-year-old will earn his 65th cap for the Blues, having played in every game for the past three seasons.
Augustine Pulu, who scored two tries and had a third controversially ruled out, is rewarded with another start, his 87th Super Rugby cap and 37th and final game for the Blues before heading to Japan. He is partnered by fly-half Otere Black.
Williams will partner 20-year-old Tanielu Tele’a, who has impressed on the wing in his rookie season. Tele’a moves to his more accustomed midfield role alongside Williams, with TJ Faiane, who has started in every game, out with a hand injury.
The Blues back three is reunited with Rieko Ioane playing his 49th game for the Blues. Caleb Clarke returns from injury and Melani Nanai, who joins Akira Ioane as the only players to start in every game this year, is at full-back for the final time before he heads to the UK.
It means Ma’a Nonu, who has been such an influential player this year, will add his energy off the bench.
“Clearly last week was gutting for the whole team but it’s important we put that behind us and focus on this opportunity,” said Blues coach Leon MacDonald.
“We played some excellent rugby last week and some not-so-good, so we know that a complete performance is within our grasp.
“We owe it to ourselves, after a season of such hard work and dedication, to enjoy the opportunity to execute like we know we can.”
Blues: 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Caleb Clarke, 13 Tanielu Tele’a, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Otere Black, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson (c), 6 Dalton Papalii, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Marcel Renata, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Hisa Sasagi, 18 Lua Li, 19 Tom Robinson, 20 Josh Goodhue, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Ma’a Nonu
Date: Saturday, June 15
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19:35 local (08:45 BST, 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)