Birthday boy Ma’a Nonu has been described as a player without peer in Super Rugby this year.
Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd couldn’t speak highly enough of the blockbusting All Black, whose form for the Super Rugby leaders has been close to the best of his 14-season professional career.
Boyd’s default position is usually to talk down his team and the merits of his players but the dreadlocked inside centre’s form has shone too brightly.
“I haven’t seen, in my analysis, somebody who’s played consistently as well as him in Super Rugby this year.
“We’re delighted that he’s here and playing so well.”
Nonu, who turned 33 on Thursday, scored two tries in the Hurricanes’ crucial 22-18 win over the second-placed Chiefs last week.
He ran with typical vigour and tackled ferociously in the heart of a defiant team defensive display.
Saturday’s match against the Blues in Auckland will be Nonu’s 122nd for the Hurricanes, equalling the team’s record for caps held by former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga.
That number would have been considerably higher had he not taken three seasons off to play for the Blues and Highlanders following a falling out with former Hurricanes mentor Mark Hammett.
Nonu learned plenty from Umaga at Super Rugby and Test level through his formative professional years before beginning an irrepressible decade-long relationship with Conrad Smith.
Smith has been rested this week, putting extra responsibility on Nonu to help steer a backline which features Rey Lee-Lo at centre and the inexperienced James Marshall at five-eighth.
He must do it while combating muscular Blues No.12 George Moala, arguably the best player for the struggling northerners in recent weeks.
Lee-Lo’s introduction is the only change made to the backline by Boyd, who has completely overhauled his front row and brought in Blade Thomson for Brad Shields on the blindside flank.
All Blacks hooker Dane Coles will make his first start for nine weeks, having made a couple of bench appearances this month following elbow and calf ailments.
He replaces Motu Matu’u and will pack down between Chris Eves and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, who are both promoted from regular bench roles.
All Blacks prop Ben Franks has succumbed to an Achilles tendon injury while Reggie Goodes is serving a one-game suspension for a dangerous charge which ended the season for Chiefs lock Michael Allardice.
Hurricanes: Nehe Milner-Skudder, Cory Jane, Rey Lee-Lo, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, James Marshall, TJ Perenara, Victor Vito, Ardie Savea, Blade Thomson, James Broadhurst, Jeremy Thrush (capt), Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Dane Coles, Chris Eves. Reserves: Motu Matu’u, Ben May, Tolu Fahamokioa, Mark Abbott/Callum Gibbins, Brad Shields, Chris Smylie, Otere Black, Willis Halaholo.