Head coach Leon MacDonald has made just one change to the starting XV that secured their third victory of the season, 27-17 over the Hurricanes, before last weekend’s bye, bringing in Jonathan Ruru to start at halfback, with Sam Nock dropping out of the 23 altogether and Finlay Christie returning via the bench. Regular skipper Patrick Tuipulotu is still unavailable as he nurses a neck issue.
Otherwise it’s an unchanged run-on XV, with the only other tweak among the reserves where veteran outside back Bryce Heem gets the nod this week ahead of rookie AJ Lam.
That means stand-in skipper Tom Robinson retains his spot in the No 6 jersey, ahead of 2020 All Black Akira Ioane who will provide his impact off the bench once again. And rookie lock Sam Darry gets his third start of the campaign alongside the experienced Gerard Cowley-Tuioti in the second row.
Forwards coach Tom Coventry said after an energetic Thursday training hitout in squally Auckland weather that they were hoping consistency in selection would yield some major improvements in terms of performance.
Despite being 3-2 for the season, and sitting in second spot on the standings, Coventry made it clear the big movers of 2020 had not yet reached the standards they expect of themselves in this edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
“It’s trying to put a performance on the field we’ve been after all season,” said the forwards coach. “I don’t think we’ve been at our very best either. We’ve managed to get home and be comfortable with some of our results, but the way we play is probably just as important as the result sometimes, and we’ll be looking to be better than we have been over the last 3-4 weeks.”
The plan, said Coventry, that continuity in selection would yield improvement in performance.
“Teams have been trying to get combinations right, but part of what you need to be doing now is getting consistency in performance and selection, and sometimes guys knowing they’re going to be playing every week and getting the opportunity to improve their games on the grass helps.”
Coventry said the Highlanders were clearly a danger team who had played very well to roll the Crusaders a fortnight back, and not so well to lose at home against the Chiefs last week in golden point extra time.
But he made it clear his team would not shy away from a high-pace game under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium, despite this theory that they preferred to play a much slower style of football.
“It suits New Zealand teams to play with a dry ball, and I’ve got no doubt both teams will relish it being dry,” he added. “I think it suits us too. We’ve been compared to a big South African team in the past and being heavy and slow around the field.
“But I think we can run and gun with the best of them. So being able to use our speed on the edges of the field is key but also being good up front is a big part of what we are about as well.”
The Highlanders have lost all three Super Rugby Aotearoa matches against the Blues and the men from Auckland will be desperate to extend that run to four as they look to keep the pressure on the Crusaders for the all-important top qualifying spot.
Blues: Stephen Perofeta, Mark Telea, Rieko Ioane, TJ Faiane, Caleb Clarke, Otere Black, Jonathan Ruru; Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson (capt), Sam Darry, Gerard-Cowley-Tuioti, Ofa Tuungafasi, Luteru Tolai, Karl Tu’inukuafe. Reserves: Leni Apisai, Alex Hodgman, Nepo Laulala, Josh Goodhue, Akira Ioane, Finlay Christie, Harry Plummer, Bryce Heem.