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Final touches being put on pre-season campaign

Final touches being put on pre-season campaign

All BlacksFebruary 16, 2024

Final pre-season steps for New Zealand's DHL Super Rugby Pacific squads will be completed on Friday.

Blues coach Vern Cotter is looking for more improvement from his side after their efforts in Japan when hosting the Chiefs at Onewa Domain at 4pm on Friday live on NZR+.

"The boys are starting to piece things together on the park, and it'll be good to give some minutes to those players who haven't featured yet ahead of our round one match against the Drua in Whangārei.

"The Chiefs are a perfect match up this Friday – they were finalists last year and always bring a strong physical element every time they take the park."

Most of his squad should see game time, although loose forward Akira Ioane won't be among them due to a calf strain that will delay his season start. Also out with injuries are Rob Rush (calf), Sam Darry (neck), Ofa Tu'ungafasi (knee) and Patrick Tuipulotu (jaw).

All Blacks Rieko Ioane, Finlay Christie, Mark Telea, and Dalton Papali'i, as well as regulars from last season Bryce Heem, Harry Plummer, and AJ Lam, will make their first appearances.

Coach Clayton McMillan was impressed with how the Blues performed in Japan. Their combination of power and speed made them hard to contain.

He said the Chiefs looked forward to the challenge they would present. But he also challenged his players to make selection difficult for the season proper.

"We have named two teams that will play 40 minutes each. The message to both is clear – if you want to be playing games when points are at stake, these are the opportunities to advance your case for inclusion."

Like other sides, the Chiefs will field their returning All Blacks. Also making their first appearances will be wing Etene Nanai-Seturo and fullback Shaun Stevenson.

At Upper Hutt at 2.30 pm on Friday, the Hurricanes host Moana Pasifika in a game which will be screened live on NZR+.

Hurricanes coach Clark Laidlaw said that while disappointed with the heavy loss to the Highlanders in their first warm-up game, it had been good for 38 of the squad to get some game time.

"There were no serious injuries, which is a bonus in pre-season, and it has given us an opportunity to improve some areas we can take into the game against Moana Pasifika."

Returning after missing all of last season with an Achilles tendon injury will be halfback TJ Perenara.

Laidlaw said: "TJ hasn't lost any of his edge. It's been an exciting time for him, with his return from injury and the birth of his second child a couple of weeks ago. We're looking forward to seeing him back out there."

Also returning to the side will be All Blacks, Tyrel Lomax and Jordie Barrett, while Isaia Walker-Leawere will have his first run.

Moana Pasifika coach Fa'alogo Tana Umaga has named 30 players for the game, with captain James Lay, wing and former Hurricane Julian Savea and hooker Sama Malolo in the starting side.

Umaga also gave starting spots to development player Kyren Taumoefolau at fullback and Tongan international Semisi Paea at No8. Viliami Fine has also gained another start on the wing.

Southern neighbours the Crusaders and Highlanders will play their annual warm-up game in Methven at 4 pm.

The final pre-season run before your #SuperRugbyPacific season begins next week! pic.twitter.com/il4FYuvNrf

— Super Rugby Pacific (@SuperRugby) February 15, 2024

The defending champion Crusaders will be led by hooker Brodie McAlister who will start with Tamaiti Williams and Fletcher Newell in the front row.

There will be a new look to the rest of the pack with Atonio Shalfoon and Tahlor Cahill starting at lock and George Reeves, Fletcher Anderson and Torian Barnes in the loose forwards. Wing Sevu Reece is the only Crusaders regular in the backline, which has Louie Chapman at halfback, Dan Hawkins at first five-eighths, Jone Rova and Toby Bell in the centres, Heremaia Murray on the other wing and Taine Robinson at fullback.

The Highlanders, who have two wins in their warm-up campaign, will have All Blacks prop Ethan de Groot back in the side while Cam Millar has been given the start at first five-eighths.

Outside him, Sam Gilbert and Tanielu Tele'a will be paired for the first time in the centres.

Forwards coach Tom Donnelly is looking forward to de Groot's return.

"Ethan has evolved into a formidable presence in the front row, and we're looking forward to having him back in the starting XV. I am pleased with the progress our forwards have made during the pre-season, and adding a quality scrummager like Ethan to the mix will bolster the team."

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