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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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