Auckland - Blues coach Tana Umaga has named his team for their Super Rugby clash against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday.
Umaga named six current and three former All Blacks in his squad for the opener at Forsyth Barr Stadium, while there are four players to make their Super Rugby debuts and two others wearing the Blues jersey for the first time.
The Blues backline looks full of attacking flair, including Rieko Ioane, Matt Duffie, Sonny Bill Williams and George Moala, who cemented the Blues’ victory at the recent Brisbane Global 10s.
New captain Augustine Pulu starts at scrumhalf inside Bryn Gatland, who has his fifth game for the Blues at flyhalf, on the back of some strong performances last year.
Gatland is the son of Wales and British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland.
Experienced James Parsons is flanked in the front row by All Black scrummaging powerhouse Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Alex Hodgman, who gets his second start after a standout season for Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup.
Scott Scrafton and Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, who proved themselves as a key pairing in Super Rugby last year, will start together in the middle row for the ninth time, with an in-form Akira Ioane at No 8 with two North Harbour loose forwards in Murphy Taramai and Glenn Preston.
All Black Patrick Tuipulotu, back after a niggling injury, will come off the bench as well Blues newcomers Leni Apisai, Mike Tamoaieta, Jonathan Ruru, Daniel Kirkpatrick and loose forward brackets, Antonio Kiri Kiri and Sione Havili.
The Blues have 12 players not considered because of injury, including Jerome Kaino and Jimmy Tupou, who coach Umaga is giving an additional week to shake off minor injuries.
It is an important opening game for the Blues who enjoyed a productive pre-season that included the victory at Brisbane.
“Everyone is excited to get the season underway and I’m pleased with the attitude and application from our players in pre-season,” Umaga told the Blues’ official website.
“We continued to improve last year but we know that we need to do better against our fellow New Zealand teams, especially with two full derby rounds this year, and also deliver on those key moments in what is going to be a very tight and tough season.
“We have a few players with longer-term injuries, and some with lesser injuries that could have possibly played if pushed, but this is a long season and player welfare is really important.”
15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Tei Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Substitutes: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Dan Pryor, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes
15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Bryn Gatland, 9 Augustine Pulu (captain), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Glenn Preston, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman
Substitutes: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Michael Tamoaieta, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Sione Havili/Antonio Kiri Kiri, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 23 Melani Nanai