Skipper Dalton Papalii returns to the Blues’ starting line-up to lead the statement performance due to take place against the Chiefs on Saturday at Eden Park, and also gets star-studded assist from the bench.
Coach Leon MacDonald has kept changes to a minimum, with Papalii’s return from concussion protocols to No.7 and the promotion of Stephen Perofeta to full-back (for Zarn Sullivan) the only changes to the starting XV who opened the Super Rugby Pacific with that heartbreaking 33-32 loss to the Hurricanes in Dunedin.
There’s also a first appearance for the season from All Black Beauden Barrett, with the 30-year-old set to come off the bench in the impact role. The experienced playmaker, who spent the last Super Rugby season in Japan, worked through lingering symptoms from a blow to the head suffered against Ireland last November, and followed return protocols closely before its first action for 2022.
“We were very clear that the last half of the game was not what we wanted, but on reflection, not having some of our key leaders was probably something that contributed,” the coach said. Blues assistant Daniel Halangahu on Thursday. “Getting Dalton back is huge, and Beauden has come through the week pretty well. He’s been out for a while and coming back smoothly is also good for us.
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The attacking coach says Barrett added a lot of his presence and professionalism even when he wasn’t playing, but now that influence would only increase and also lift Rieko Ioane’s leadership load a bit in the bottom line.
“We don’t take chances with anyone’s career, so Beauden took his time to come back,” added Halangahu. “But Beauden feels ready now. He went through everything exactly as we hoped. We also wouldn’t let him out on Matchday 23 if he was ready and able.
Super-signer Roger Tuivasa-Sheck remains at No.12 after a promising first effort against the Canes was only marred by his missed late tackle on Bailyn Sullivan that opened up the game-winning try for Ardie Savea.
Tuivasa-Sheck impressed with his footwork and distribution and seemed to be making a good connection with All Blacks star Ioane on the outside. He ran 50m against the Canes in 11 runs and beat four defenders.
“It was a brilliant start for Roger,” noted Ioane, “I probably would have given it a try if he hadn’t tackled me himself in those opening stages. He’s a good athlete, and he it’s just about gelling this combination the more time we spend in the saddle the more it will only do the team good, and hopefully you’ll see a little more attack from him this week as we let’s try to get him into space.
Perofeta’s selection at the back was also less a reflection of what Zarn Sullivan produced last week, and more of what the talented playmaker brought to the table.
“We can put this into shape. Stephen was extremely unlucky not to be in the starting squad in week one,” added Halangahu. “He was probably the NPC player, and it’s a challenge to pick a backline when you have guys competing and performing well.”
Naturally, this week has contained a lot of thought about finishing Canes. The Blues were disgusted to spit an 18-point lead in the final 10 minutes, where a crushing three-try finish snuffed them out with a seemingly unassailable lead.
“I think we played well for 70 minutes, and it was probably one of our best starts to a season in recent times,” said Ioane, who blamed himself for leaving a try or two. “But you don’t win games in 70 minutes. And having those chances to earn moments, and accumulating them, is going to be huge to get that 80-minute performance that we’re looking for.
Halangahu added: “We are definitely not satisfied in a good 70 minutes. We are happy to win games.
The Blues recognize they did some positive things building that 32-14 lead in the 70th minute. Their field played mostly at a high level, producing two tries for hooker Kurt Eklund via the line-out, and wingers Mark Telea (125m, 14 carries) and Caleb Clarke (95m, 8 carries) were both dangerous offensive threats.
“We still haven’t put it together,” Ioane added. “It was great to have that start, but we have to have it for 80 minutes. And even in those 70 minutes there were still times when we could have capitalized on more opportunities.”
Experienced lock Josh Goodhue noted the pressure was unlikely to ease this week.
“It’s still a massive battle against the Chiefs,” he said. “They always come hard on us at the breakdown and try to break us there. It’s a huge game for us because we also want some points on the board.
The Blues, meanwhile, have confirmed the move of their March 11 game against the Whangarei Highlanders to North Harbor Stadium in Albany due to Covid red light settings.
BLUES: Stephen Perofeta, Mark Telea, Rieko Ioane, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Caleb Clarke, Harry Plummer, Finlay Christie; Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papalii (captain), Tom Robinson, Josh Goodhue, Luke Romano, Nepo Laulala, Kurt Eklund, Alex Hodgman. Reservations: Ricky Riccitelli, Ofa Tuungafasi, Marcel Renata, Sam Darry, Adrian Choat, Sam Nock, Beauden Barrett, AJ Lam.