The Blues dropped out of Super Rugby contention weeks ago but will be highly motivated for their last game of the season, warns Highlanders lock Alex Ainley.
The fifth-placed Highlanders have plenty at stake themselves in Friday’s match in Auckland.
A win will put them in pole position to secure a home playoff game for the first time since 1999, with a bonus point for scoring four tries further boosting their chances.
They are neck and neck with the Chiefs, who can hold onto fourth place – and home advantage in a qualifying final a week later – if they can better the Highlanders’ deeds when they face the Hurricanes 24 hours later in New Plymouth.
Ainley says any thoughts of pursuing a bonus point or a wide winning margin aren’t in the Highlanders’ thoughts heading to Eden Park, particularly after last week’s humbling 56-20 loss to the Hurricanes.
“We were well dusted up so we’re not taking anyone lightly. I think it woke everyone up a bit,” he told NZ Newswire.
“The Blues will be wanting to prove something, whether they’re players who are leaving or who are wanting a contract again next year.”
The 14th-placed Blues will seek to send their departing veteran All Blacks front-rowers Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock out on a high.
And a loss would leave the Blues potentially exposed to claiming the wooden spoon and reflecting on the first season with just three wins to their name. They won four games in 1999, 2001 and 2012.
Ainley has recovered from a knee complaint and will start only the fifth successive game of his debut season after missing three-quarters of the campaign with a calf injury followed by a broken jaw suffered playing club rugby.
The 33-year-old has been a late-season saviour for the southerners, who have lost locks Joe Wheeler (knee), Mark Reddish (hand) and Tom Franklin (bicep) to serious injuries.
Locking partner Joe Latta will make his first Super Rugby start while bench back-up Jackson Hemopo has been whistled up from club rugby.