Blues Super Rugby head coach Tana Umaga has named six current and three former All Blacks in his team to play the Highlanders Dunedin on Friday.
Augustine Pulu leads a side which has a mix of All Black stars and a number of debutants as there are four players making 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 halfback inside Bryn Gatland, who has his fifth game for the Blues at first five, on the back of some strong performances last year.
Experienced James Parsons is flanked in the front row by All Black scrummaging powerhouse Ofa Tuungafasi and Alex Hodgman, who gets his second start after a standout season for Canterbury in the ITM 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 No8 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,” said Umaga.
“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.”
Alex Hodgman, 2. James Parsons, 3. Ofa Tuungafasi, 4. Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 5. Scott Scrafton, 6. Glenn Preston, 7. Murphy Taramai, 8. Akira Ioane; 9. Augustine Pulu ©, 10. Bryn Gatland, 11. Rieko Ioane, 12. Sonny Bill Williams, 13. George Moala, 14. Matt Duffie,15. Michael Collins.
Replacements: 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.
Players not considered because of injury: Otere Black (knee), Blake Gibson (shoulder), Matt Moulds (knee), Dalton Papalii (hand), Stephen Perofeta (hand), Kara Pryor (ankle), TJ Faiane (calf), Jerome Kaino (ankle), Isaac Salmon (elbow), Jimmy Tupou (rib), Sione Mafileo (knee).