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Ioane brothers return as Blues make 15 changes for Highlanders derby

By Tom Vinicombe
Akira Ioane on the run

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Coach Leon MacDonald has completely refreshed his starting line-up for the Blues’ quarter-final derby with the Highlanders this weekend.

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Not one of the 15 players who started in last weekend’s last-minute victory over the Waratahs in Sydney has been selected in the run-on side for the quarter-final, meaning the Blues will go into the match at Eden Park with fresh legs and fire in their bellies.

Importantly, the likes of Tom Robinson, Akira Ioane and Rieko Ioane will all make returns for the Blues this weekend after also sitting out the team’s prior last-second win over the Brumbies.

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In the front row, the experienced trio of Alex Hodgman, Kurt Eklund and Ofa Tuungafasi will earn their sixth start of the campaign as a unit, with last week’s No 3 Nepo Laulala dropping to the bench alongside Soane Vikena and Karl Tu’inukuafe.

Despite a man-of-the-match performance from stand-in captain Luke Romano against the Waratahs, the former All Black will start from the bench this week with James Tucker and Robinson preferred in the second row.

Akira Ioane will join Dalton Papalii and Hoskins Sotutu in a formidable loose forward trio with Adrian Choat covering via the reserves.

The first-choice halves combination of Finlay Christie and Beauden Barrett has unsurprisingly been restored for this weekend’s quarter-final with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Rieko Ioane combining in the midfield.

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Out wide, Caleb Clarke’s hamstring injury has forced a reshuffle with Mark Telea shifting from the right wing to the left and utility Bryce Heem suiting up in the No 14 jersey. Stephen Perofeta will suit up at fullback with Sam Nock, AJ Lam and Zarn Sullivan named as back reserves.

The Blues have enjoyed a remarkably clean bill of health in the latter half of the season with Akira Ioane and Heem the only two players in this week’s run-on side to have not featured in at least four of the past seven starting line-ups – and that’s despite the Blues running out a shadow team last weekend against the Waratahs.

While the Highlanders have limped into this weekend’s quarter-final clash following two losses in their last two matches, the Blues were only able to rest so many of their top players against the Waratahs due to locking up first spot on the ladder the week prior and are sitting on 13 victories on the trot – a team record. As such, the Blues will enter this weekend’s clash as firm favourites, especially given the side they’ve been able to now for the fixture.

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The Highlanders and Blues have squared off twice already this season with the Blues winning both games – although just seven points separated the two sides in their last encounter.

Saturday’s match will kick off at 7:05pm NZT from Eden Park in Auckland.

Blues: Stephen Perofeta, Bryce Heem, Rieko Ioane, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Mark Telea, Beauden Barrett, Finlay Christie, Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane, Tom Robinson, James Tucker, Ofa Tuungafasi, Kurt Eklund, Alex Hodgman. Reserves: Soane Vikena, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Nepo Laulala, Luke Romano, Adrian Choat, Sam Nock, AJ Lam, Zarn Sullivan.

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