Auckland - Blues coach Leon MacDonald has named a 40-strong squad for the 2020 Super Rugby season.
While the likes of high-profile players Sonny Bill Williams, Ma'a Nonu and Melani Nanai have gone, the bulk of the 2019 squad - 26 of them in all - are returning for 2020 with another four who have come through the Blues development system or been part of the team before.
There are 16 of the 22-strong forwards returning, led by All Blacks Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tuungafasi, Karl Tu'inukuafe and Dalton Papalii, centurion James Parsons and outstanding loose forwards Blake Gibson, Akira Ioane and Tom Robinson, who enjoyed a superb debut Super season.
The Blues have looked for more experienced hookers with Kurt Eklund (Bay of Plenty) and Samoan international Ray Niuia (Tasman) at 27 and 28 years respectively, both returning to their Auckland roots.
Uncompromising provincial locks James Tucker (Waikato) and 29-year-old Baden Wardlaw (Bay of Plenty) are rewarded for their Mitre-10 Cup campaigns to join the middle row stocks.
The Blues' exciting back row of Gibson, Ioane, Papalii, Robinson and Hoskins Sotutu will be augmented by New Zealand under-20 representative Waimana Riedlinger-Kapa (Auckland), a Blues apprentice, and USA International Tony Lamborn, who has played in Hawkes Bay and Southland along with 22 appearances for the Eagles.
Tasman's Finlay Christie returns to the Auckland region to join Sam Nock and Jonathan Ruru at halfback, while Stephen Perofeta re-joins first-fives Harry Plummer and Otere Black after a season out with injury. They are joined by two-time world player of the year, Beauden Barrett, who arrives mid-season, and rookie Jack Heighton, an exciting young North Harbour prospect.
Rieko Ioane, TJ Faiane and Tanielu Tele’a return to fill the midfield, with the All Black keen to move in from the wing this season, and they will be supported with the arrival of exciting English international Joe Marchant on sabbatical leave. He will balance the loss of Caleb Clarke, who joins the New Zealand Sevens Olympic campaign.
That leaves Matt Duffie as the only outside back from last year but he will be joined by Blues replacement player Jordyn Hyland, who has been rewarded for outstanding form for Northland and in his previous appearances with the club.
There is excitement in two young running talents in North Harbour’s Mark Telea, 21, another to come through the Blues system, and Fijian wing/fullback Emoni Narawa, 20, who was so exciting for Bay of Plenty in the Mitre-10 Cup. North Harbour’s Jared Page, a talented allrounder who has been beset by injury in recent years, has been included as a utility.
"It's important that last year’s experiences count. We must build on that. And we have made no bones about the fact that we are going to be a hard-working team," MacDonald told the Blues' official website.
"Our coaching group and other staff have looked closely for players to fit this mould and that has been reflected in our selections.
"We also want to play a fast, open brand of rugby. To that end we already have some outstanding players and we have added some exciting players to this. We want players who are capable of seeing space and playing what is in front of them.
"We also believe we have a number of players with the ability to play in different positions and this versatility will no doubt prove advantageous.
"The vast majority of players are from our system or are returning back to the region, but where we could not find the right fit, then we have not hesitated to acquiring the type of player we are looking for.
"Now the hard work begins. There won't be any predictions coming from this group, just a promise that it will be a case of no guts, no glory for the Blues in 2020.”
The squad begins at the end of the month, with a New Year start for the Rugby World Cup All Blacks.
Blues Super Rugby squad:
Beauden Barrett, Otere Black, Finlay Christie, Caleb Clarke, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Matt Duffie, Kurt Eklund, TJ Faiane, Blake Gibson, Josh Goodhue, Jack Heighton, Alex Hodgman, Jordan Hyland, Akira Ioane, Rieko Ioane, Tony Lamborn, Ezekiel Lindenmuth, Sione Mafileo, Joe Marchant, Emoni Narawa, Ray Niuia, Sam Nock, Jared Page, Dalton Papalii, James Parsons, Stephen Perofeta, Jacob Pierce, Harry Plummer, Marcel Renata, Waimana Riedlinger-Kapa, Tom Robinson, Jonathan Ruru, Hoskins Sotutu, Mark Telea, Tanielu Tele’a, James Tucker, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tuungafasi, Baden Wardlaw