Two months of enforced bed rest will pay off for All Blacks lock Patrick Tuipulotu when he runs on for the Blues in their opening Super Rugby match against the Highlanders at Eden Park on Friday.
The seven-Test All Black missed the World Cup after a developmental hip defect was detected when he was undergoing treatment for a groin injury last year.
Double hip surgery in June was followed by strictly enforced bed rest, but Tuipulotu has returned to the Super Rugby fray stronger than ever and has looked impressive in pre-season play.
New Blues coach Tana Umaga will blood some new players alongside proven performers like Tuipulotu, with plenty of firepower to come off the bench.
Hooker James Parsons, with 50 caps to his credit, will lead the side as regular skipper Jerome Kaino serves a one-match ban for punching Pauliasi Manu in last week’s pre-season match against the Chiefs.
Japan World Cup star Male Sa’u will start at centre alongside All Black George Moala after impressing in his Blues debut against the Chiefs.
North Harbour prop Sione Mafileo has earned his first start, after two games off the bench late last season, alongside Parsons and Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
In-form loose forward Joe Edwards, who also enjoyed an outstanding national provincial championship, will start at No.6 in Kaino’s absence alongside Steven Luatua and Blake Gibson, a member of New Zealand’s under-20 World Cup-winning side.
North Harbour captain Bryn Hall has been named at halfback alongside Ihaia West after missing all of last year’s Super Rugby season with injury.
Umaga has plenty of options on the bench including All Black Charlie Faumuina, sevens star Akira Ioane and former All Black Rene Ranger.
Blues: Lolagi Visinia, Melani Nanai, Male Sa’u, George Moala, Tevita Li, Ihaia West, Bryn Hall, Steven Luatua, Blake Gibson, Joe Edwards, Josh Bekhuis, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sione Mafileo, James Parsons, Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Namatahi Waa, Charlie Faumuina, Akira Ioane, Kara Pryor, Billy Guyton, Matt McGahan, Rene Ranger.