The Blues and Reds kick off Super Rugby’s return from the international break when they meet at Eden Park in a trans-Tasman derby on Friday.
This is a clash between two sides who have been perennial underachievers of recent campaigns. The Reds have finished 15th, 14th, 13th and 13th in their last four seasons, while the Blues have finished 9th, 11th, 14th and 10th.
This season, the Blues sit rock-bottom of the New Zealand Conference while the Reds would be rooted to the foot of the table were it not for the even more awful Sunwolves.
Counting in the Blues’ favour is the fact they are undefeated in their last three games against the Reds, while the Reds have won just two of their last 10 away clashes with the Blues.
Having previously been undefeated in 11 consecutive games against Australian opposition, the Blues succumbed to a 20-10 defeat to the Rebels in their last encounter against opposition from Down Under.
Both sides have former All Black players at the helm and boast wonderful talent coming through the ranks and therefore should be doing better. Faith has been shown in the two coaches on the understanding that Brad Thorn and Tana Umaga are building for the future for their respective sides. Umaga, in particular, has been lucky to survive the axe considering his record since taking over.
But with the majority of the players reinvigorated after the international break, it is a clean slate and new beginning for all, with Reds coach Thorn excited to be coming up against his old All Black team-mate.
“The guys are excited to be back in Super Rugby mode. Queensland hasn’t won at Eden Park since 2012, so there’s a great challenge and opportunity in front of us to show what progress we’ve made this season,” he said.
“We’ve been hit with some injuries during the June Test window through Wallabies and club Rugby, but we’ve been giving players opportunities all year to ensure we can deal with setbacks when they occur. It’s disappointing to lose those guys to injury, but it presents opportunities to other players.
“The Blues are a dangerous team. They’re big, athletic and have plenty of strike power. It’s tough to win at Eden Park, so we’ll need head there ready for anything.”
The last time the teams met: It was the first Super Rugby match and only one since to be played in Samoa (Apia to be precise in 2017). The Blues won 34-29 thanks to a Rene Ranger hat-trick and tries from Rieko Ioane, Kara Pryor and Gerard Cowley-Tuioti while the Reds scored through Taniela Tupou (twice), Andrew Ready and Adam Korczyk.
Team news: The Blues welcome back All Blacks Rieko Ioane and Ofa Tuungafasi for Friday’s Super Rugby clash.
The match will be Jerome Kaino’s final home game on his beloved Eden Park where he has many of his best and most memorable rugby occasions.
Kaino, who made his Super debut against the Reds in 2004, will chalk up his 137th cap for the club, to draw level with Tony Woodcock as the joint second most capped Blues player behind Keven Mealamu.
Tuungafasi returns to bolster a strong looking Blues pack with Alex Hodgman and James Parsons, with Kaino forming a powerful back-row with Akira Ioane and Blake Gibson, who makes a welcome first appearance after off-season shoulder surgery.
With Sonny Bill Williams sidelined with a shoulder injury received against France, Rieko Ioane moves back to the Blues midfield alongside Michael Collins, who has played in this role often before finding a home at full-back when he came to the Blues.
It leaves an exciting back three with New Zealand U20s wing Caleb Clark, Melani Nanai and Matt Duffie.
Captain Augustine Pulu will need to come through a fitness test to take his place at half-back inside Stephen Perofeta and is bracketed with Sam Nock.
Meanwhile, the match will see several of the Reds’ Wallabies representatives return to the line-up, with Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Taniela Tupou, Lukhan Tui and Samu Kerevi all named in the starting XV and Caleb Timu on the bench.
The coaches have also been forced into some changes, with a number of players ruled out due to injury, including Wallabies lock Izack Rodda (shoulder) and outside back Izaia Perese (knee).
The Reds have made four personnel changes to the starting side from their last fixture against the Waratahs at the start of the month.
In the forwards, the injury to regular starter Rodda sees young lock Harry Hockings get his second opportunity in the starting line-up, while Tui returns to the Reds for the first time since Round 9.
In the backs, an injury to Perese suffered during club rugby means Eto Nabuli gets his first opportunity on the wing since Round 6. Jono Lance also returns to the side at full-back, after being a late injury scratching from the last match.
The Reds have also made several changes to the bench, highlighted by the return of their international representatives. Timu has recovered from an ankle injury to take a place on the bench, along with Junior Wallabies prop Harry Hoopert and scrum-half Tate McDermott, who have resumed their reserve roles after returning from the World Rugby U20s Championships in France.
2017: Blues won 34-29 in Apia
2016: The teams drew 25-25 in Brisbane
2014: Blues won 44-14 in Auckland
2013: Reds won 12-11 in Brisbane
2012: Reds won 23-11 in Auckland
2011: Reds won 30-13 in Brisbane
2011: Reds won 37-31 in Brisbane
2010: Blues won 27-18 in Brisbane
Blues: 15 Matt Duffie, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Michael Collins, 12 Rieko Ioane, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu (c)/Sam Nock, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Matiaha Martin, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds/Leni Apisai, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Jacob Pierce, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 TJ Faiane/Tumua Manu
Reds: 15 Jono Lance, 14 Jordan Petaia, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Duncan Paia’aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Hamish Stewart, 9 Moses Sorovi, 8 Scott Higginbotham (c), 7 George Smith, 6 Lukhan Tui, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Harry Hockings, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 JP Smith
Replacements: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Harry Hoopert, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Caleb Timu, 20 Angus Scott-Young, 21 Tate McDermott, 22 Aidan Toua, 23 Filipo Daugunu
Date: Friday, June 29
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (08:35 BST, 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Egon Seconds
Assistant referees: Rasta Rasivhenge, Glen Jackson
TMO: Ben Skeen