All Blacks great Keven Mealamu will lead the injury-wracked Blues in his record 175th and final Super Rugby match against the Highlanders in Auckland.
Fellow-hooker James Parsons has dropped to the reserves bench for Friday’s game, ceding the captain’s armband to 36-year-old Mealamu, who will extend his record as the most capped player in the competition’s history.
While Mealamu hasn’t officially announced his retirement beyond this year, he has confirmed he won’t return for the Blues, who have endured a miserable season.
It could be an emotional night for the 14th-placed side, who need one point to ensure they don’t claim the wooden spoon.
Several other players are departing, including fullback Charles Piutau, who has missed the last four games with a knee injury, and possibly former All Blacks halfback Jimmy Cowan, who is on the bench.
Piutau replaces Matt Vaega from the team beaten 34-11 at Eden Park by the Crusaders, the Blues’ 12th loss, while Jamison Gibson-Park replaces Cowan.
There are four changes to the pack, where flanker Chris Vui will make his first start in place of Airi Hunt and Hayden Triggs replaces lock Will Lloyd.
Angus Ta’avao is at tighthead prop in place of the injured Ofa Tu’ungafasi in what will be his last Blues game before leaving for the NSW Waratahs.
The most poignant change is at hooker, where Parsons will play his 50th game off the bench.
He says it is an honour to pass the captaincy to Mealamu, who was an inspirational figure early in his career.
There are 12 players on the Blues injury list as well as three others absent at the under-20 world championship in Italy.
Mealamu says it is important to ignore those absences against a fifth-placed Highlanders side who have already clinched a play-off berth.
“This has been a tough season for the Blues but we can go out on a good note knowing we have performed to our best,” Mealamu said.
“We have some other players leaving as well so we owe it to them and to ourselves to be the best we can be both individually and collectively.”
Blues: Charles Piutau, Ben Lam, Hamish Northcott, George Moala, Melani Nanai, Ihaia West, Jamison Gibson-Park, Joe Edwards, Brendon O’Connor, Chris Vui, Josh Bekhuis, Hayden Triggs, Angus Ta’avao, Keven Mealamu (capt), Sam Prattley. Reserves: James Parsons, Nic Mayhew, Sione Mafileo, Will Lloyd, Jack Ram, Jimmy Cowan, Matt McGahan, Lolagi Visinia.