Blues name strong team for all-important Force clash

The Blues have named a settled line-up as they enter "unchartered waters" — competition leaders — heading into the all-important final round of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

Mark Telea celebrates a try for the Blues. Source: Photosport

A bonus point victory will confirm a home final for the Blues, while a win will likely mean a calculation of points for and against involving the Highlanders, Crusaders and Hurricanes.

The Blues go into the final round one point ahead of the chasing pack and with a healthy points differential in their favour as they face an impressive Western Force squad.

But coach Leon MacDonald said none of that would factor into the side’s thinking this week.

“We have approached this competition by never getting ahead of ourselves. We have focussed on doing the basics well, playing at the right end of the field and defending with equal parts of aggression, pride and accuracy,” MacDonald said.

“When we have front-foot ball in the right parts of the field, then that has given our ball-runners options and opportunity.

“We know we are in unchartered waters for this group of men, but we will be stressing that we keep on doing what has been working for us. Keep it simple, be smart, work hard and believe in each other. Do that and good things should happen."

The backline is unchanged, with the inside quartet of halfback Finlay Christie, first-five Otere Black, second-five TJ Faiane and centre Rieko Ioane with more than 220 Super caps between them, and with Ioane having started in every game this season.

There's a mix of youth and experience with 20-year-old fullback Zarn Sullivan and 32-year-old winger Bryce Heem both in superb form.

Upfront, Hoskins Sotutu returns to start at No 8 with his fellow All Blacks teammate Akira Ioane to add impact off the bench.

There is another All Black swap in the front row with Alex Hodgman to start at loosehead while Karl Tu’inukuafe will come off the bench.

Prop Nepo Laulala gets his sixth start at tighthead with Ofa Tuungafasi sidelined with niggling knee and hand ailments.

All Black Patrick Tuipulotu will captain from lock alongside the in-form Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, with the standout pairing of Dalton Papalii and Tom Robinson on the flanks.

Meanwhile, Josh Goodhue passed his fitness test to be included in the reserves that includes Samoa World Cup hooker Ray Niuia, who will make just his second appearance after rupturing his ACL in the opening game of the 2020 season.

Blues: 15 Zarn Sullivan, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Mark Telea, 10 Otere Black, 9 Finlay Christie; 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1. Alex Hodgman.

Reserves: 16 Ray Niuia, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Josh Goodhue, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 AJ Lam.