Seven All Blacks stars return to Blues lineup for Western Force clash
Clarke, Ioane and Papalii are joined by fellow New Zealand internationals Finlay Christie, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Alex Hodgman – who is in line for his 50th Blues cap – and Luke Romano in their return to the Auckland-based franchise’s starting team.
Their additions represent seven of 11 changes made to Leon MacDonald’s starting side following their disjointed 35-18 Super Round win over the Fijian Drua at AAMI Park in Melbourne last Saturday.
The inclusions of Clarke and Ioane are arguably the most significant of the lot, though, given the former has missed the last three weeks through suspension, while the latter hasn’t played at all this season due to a foot injury.
Ioane, meanwhile, has been sidelined throughout the entirety of the Super Rugby Pacific campaign thus far as a result of a Lisfranc fracture sustained during pre-season.
Both will mark their returns to action at HBF Park this weekend, and they will be joined by Papalii, who was given last week off after starring in the previous week’s blockbuster win over the Crusaders in Christchurch.
Together, Ioane and Papalii form a brand-new loose forward trio which also features rookie No 8 Anton Segner.
Of last week’s starters, No 8 Hoskins Sotutu is one of three All Blacks, including midfielder Rieko Ioane and prop Nepo Laulala, on rest weeks, while blindside flanker Tom Robinson sits out after picking up a minor knock against the Drua.
In Laulala’s absence comes Tu’ungafasi, who is one third of an entirely new front row that is also made up by Hodgman and hooker Kurt Eklund.
The remainder of the forwards are made up by locks Romano and Sam Darry, who is the only survivor in the starting pack from last week’s win.
Barrett will resume his halves partnership with Christie, while Tuivasa-Sheck will create a fresh midfield combination with Bryce Heem.
In a statement released on Wednesday, MacDonald said his side need to be on point in their away match against the Force, whose match last week against Moana Pasifika was postponed due to a Covid outbreak within their squad.
“This is a well-respected rugby region and we know it is an extremely hard place to come and be successful,” MacDonald said.
“We are aware they were hit with Covid, as all the New Zealand teams have experienced, but equally they are freshened after not playing last week.
“We have huge respect for the Force and for both the rugby in general in Western Australia and the tremendous support the game gets in this part of the world.
“We played a little into the Drua’s hands last weekend, and we know we will need to be more assertive at set-piece and at the collision but at the same time ensure our defence is both aggressive but disciplined.
“While we are obviously pleased to have won a bunch of games on the trot, believe me, we are not looking at the points table. The focus continues to be session-by-session, day-by-day and game-by-game.”
Kick-off for Friday’s match between the Blues and Western Force is scheduled for 7:59pm local time [11:59pm NZT].
Blues team to play Western Force
1. Alex Hodgman
2. Kurt Eklund
3. Ofa Tu’ungafasi
4. Luke Romano
5. Sam Darry
6. Akira Ioane
7. Dalton Papalii (c)
8. Anton Segner
9. Finlay Christie
10. Beauden Barrett
11. Caleb Clarke
12. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
13. Bryce Heem
14. AJ Lam
15. Zarn Sullivan
16. Ricky Riccitelli
17. Karl Tu’inukuafe
18. Marcel Renata
19. James Tucker
20. Adrian Choat
21. Taufa Funaki
22. Tanielu Tele’a
23. Mark Telea
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