Blues head coach Tana Umaga has been able to bring back three key players to his Super Rugby team to play the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday.
All Black Steven Luatua returns after suspension which allows coach Tana Umaga to rest Jimmy Tupou who has carried a significant workload in the opening six games.
Outstanding young flanker Blake Gibson is back to full fitness to resume his openside loose forward role, while 21-year-old All Black Rieko Ioane earns a recall to the starting line-up after an outstanding contribution off the bench in the win over the Western Force last weekend. He will start at centre with fellow All Black George Moala moving to second five.
“We have missed Steven’s undoubted skills and it also allows Jerome (Kaino) to return to his role at No 6 where he is regarded as the best in the world,” Umaga said.
“Rieko is an extraordinary talent and showed his class off the bench to earn his spot back in the starting line-up.”
Auckland lock Scott Scrafton gets his first start at lock to add to the Blues line-up resources after an impressive effort as a replacement last weekend, with Patrick Tuipulotu to come off the bench.
The replacements also include the long-awaited return of Sonny Bill Williams after rupturing his Achilles at the Rio Olympics in August. He is joined on the bench by fellow All Blacks Ofa Tu’ungafasi along with Maori All Blacks Billy Guyton and Akira Ioane.
Also coming on to the bench is North Harbour’s Bryn Gatland, who trained with the Blues pre-season and comes off a stint with the Crusaders, filling in for the injured first fives Ihaia West and Stephen Perofeta.
Sam Nock (shoulder), Rene Ranger (ankle), Stephen Perofeta (ankle), Alex Hodgman (calf), Branden Nansen (wrist/hand), Ihaia West (ankle), Declan O’Donnell (concussion) were all unavailable for selection.
1 Pauliasi Manu, 2 James Parsons ©, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 5 Scott Scrafton, 6 Jerome Kaino, 7 Blake Gibson, 8 Steven Luatua; 9 Augustine Pulu, 10 Piers Francis, 11 Melani Nanai, 12 George Moala, 13. Rieko Ioane, 14 Matt Duffie, 15 Michael Collins.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.