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Blues welcome back two All Blacks as two others rested for Highlanders clash

By Ben Smith
Akira Ioane and Ofa Tuungafasi of the Blues celebrate after the Super Rugby Pacific Semi Final match between the Blues and the Brumbies at Eden Park on June 11, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The Blues have named a strong team for their first New Zealand derby of the season with the Highlanders on Friday night in the Super round boosted by the return of two All Blacks.

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After comfortably beating the Fijian Drua 34-10 in the opening round, prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi and blindside flanker Akira Ioane return to the starting lineup adding more power to an already formidable unit.

However, due to All Blacks resting protocols star centre Rieko Ioane and halfback Finlay Christie will miss the Super round derby.

“It’s great to welcome back Akira and Ofa this weekend, both are high quality players who we’re sure will make a big impact on Friday night,” said Cotter.

“Ofa joins a new-look front row for this match, it’s crucial we build depth in those tight forward positions and to welcome someone of his calibre back to the starting team is very pleasing.”

“Akira is a big, bruising loosie who imposes himself on any match. He’s starting to dial it up at training so it will be good to let him loose on the opposition this weekend.”

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After a starring man-of-the-match performance last week with two tries, Hoskins Sotutu leads the loose forwards at No 8 alongside Dalton Papalii while Ioane replaces German-born Anton Segner. Adrian Choat is reserve loose forward cover.

The ‘new-look’ front row features Tu’ungafasi, Ricky Riccitelli, and Marcel Renata. Last weeks starters Joshua Fusitu’a and Angus Ta’avao return to the bench.

In the second row Laghlan McWhannell joins Sam Darry for a new locking combination.

“Laghlan McWhannell gets his crack at lock, he’s been impressive through the pre-season and is itching to get out there. We were really impressed with Josh Beehre in his debut match last weekend and we’re happy with the depth we are building in that position,” said Cotter.

In the backs, exciting halfback Taufa Funaki has been handed a start in the halves with Stephen Perofeta, while in the midfield Rieko Ioane has been rested allowing AJ Lam to start in the No 13 jersey alongside veteran Bryce Heem.

The blistering back three of Mark Telea, Caleb Clarke and Zarn Sullivan remain unchanged.

Blues team to play Highlanders:

1. Ofa Tu’ungafasi
2, Ricky Riccitelli
3. Marcel Renata
4. Laghlan McWhannell
5. Sam Darry
6. Akira Ioane
7. Dalton Papali’i (c)
8. Hoskins Sotutu
9. Taufa Funaki
10. Stephen Perofeta
11. Caleb Clarke
12. Bryce Heem
13. AJ Lam
14. Mark Tele’a
15. Zarn Sullivan

Reserves: 

16. Soane Vikena
17. Joshua Fusitu’a
18. Angus Ta’avao
19. Josh Beehre
20. Adrian Choat
21. Sam Nock
22. Harry Plummer
23. Cole Forbes

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Poorfour 10 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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