The Blues, Chiefs and Highlanders are tightly grouped in the middle of the table chasing the likely one spot for a place in the final of the competition with three rounds remaining.
Friday night’s clash under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium between the Highlanders and Blues is a pivotal one in that title race with the Blues returning after the bye and the Highlanders having the emotional roller-coaster of their remarkable victory over the Crusaders followed by the anguish of the golden point loss to the Chiefs.
“We got away from them with probably our best effort so far this season at Eden Park to win the Gordon Hunter Trophy,” said Blues coach Leon MacDonald.
“The Highlanders showed against the Crusaders and again against the Chiefs that they are a formidable side. Given the situation with the competition, we know they are going to throw the kitchen sink at this one and we will need to be on top of our game.
“We know that sometimes teams can be lethargic off a bye but we have trained well and the boys are excited at what is ahead of us.
“Our destiny in this competition is in our own hands. That starts on Friday night where we need to be on our game, sure at set-piece, aggressive but disciplined at collision and for our pack to do the business to allow our backs to exploit opportunities.
“It is going to be a whale of a game and we are looking forward to it.”
The team is relatively unchanged from that team who bettered the Hurricanes two weeks ago with outstanding loose forward Tom Robinson starting again and leading the team in place of Patrick Tuipulotu who is still recovering from a neck ailment.
That means promising lock Sam Darry gets his third start alongside Gerard Cowley-Tuioti after strong performances against the Canes, with Robinson joining in-form All Blacks Dalton Papalii and Hoskins Sotutu in the loose.
Centurion Ofa Tuungafasi starts again with Karl Tuinukuafe, while the only change in the backline sees Jonathan Ruru start at halfback after two eye-catching performances off the bench in the last two games.
There is a powerful look to the bench that includes All Blacks Alex Hodgman, Nepo Laulala and Akira Ioane.
The Blues team is:
15 Stephen Perofeta, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Otere Black, 9 Jonathan Ruru; 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Tom Robinson (c), 5 Sam Darry, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 Luteru Tolai, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Reserves: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Josh Goodhue, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Bryce Heem.
Players not considered with injury: Ray Niuia (knee), Dillon Hunt (concussion), Patrick Tuipulotu (neck), Jone Macalai (season-ending).