Tana Umaga names eight All Blacks as Blues prepare for Lions
Sonny Bill Williams starts with 40,000 tickets already sold for Eden Park clash
Sonny Bill Williams has been named in the Blues starting XV for their clash with the Lions. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty
It is a measure of the importance which coach Tana Umaga and the Blues attach to their encounter with the Lions at Eden Park on Wednesday that akin to Warren Gatland he makes a dozen changes to the somewhat experimental side chosen to beat the Reds in Apia last Friday night.
Captain and hooker James Parsons is one of three players retained in the starting XV, along with lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and the Bristol-bound number eight Steven Luatua, who will be playing his farewell match at Eden Park.
Parsons is also one of eight current or former All Blacks in their side to play the Lions. Players returning who missed the win over the Reds in Samoa include All Blacks Charlie Faumuina, Sonny Bill Williams and George Moala along with Maori All Black Ihaia West, Blake Gibson, Augustine Pulu, Matt Duffie and Michael Collins.
That the Blues are out of contention for the Super Rugby play-offs is as much a reflection of the strength of the other four New Zealand sides as their own shortcomings. Yet this also makes their meeting with the Lions their last big game of the season, and with over 40,000 ticketx sold, one Umaga and the squad have clearly targeted.
“Who’s to say that if we were in the finals a different side would have gone to Samoa and a different side would have stayed here?” said Umaga. “For us, it’s a one-off game that means a lot. In terms of launching pads, I don’t think so. We’ve got a 10 day break after this so our boys get a well deserve rest. It’s just a memory they’ll have been a part of, but it’s a one-off game for us.”
Admitting that it had been a very difficult selection, Umaga added: “We have got a whole squad of players that want to play in this game. It’s a special moment in a player’s career. To only have 23 was very difficult but it is what it is. We took a view of being able to risk some players. We took a squad to Apia that we thought could win the game and we got that result and now we have asked this group to do the same. They have got to be following on from the good work in Apia and show the faith that has been put in this 23 on Wednesday to back up what we did in Samoa.”
Asked to look back on the 2005 tour, one could almost see Umaga tense up, before then sensing his relief as he was asked to recall what it meant to him to play the Lions.
“I knew we were going to talk about 2005 but that wasn’t a question I was expecting, so thank you for that. Back then as a player the mindset was something very special to be a part of it, to play against the British and Irish Lions.
“We had good success back then but that was back then. Different group now. It’s all about the 2017 Blues squad that is going to go up against them, and we are just looking forward to making sure that it is all about these guys and what they need to do and focus on, and what we need to do to try and get a successful result against a very good squad that has come over from Europe.”
Blues: Michael Collins; Matt Duffie, George Moala, Sonny Bill Williams/TJ Faiane, Rieko Ioane; Stephen Perofeta, Augustine Pulu; Ofa Tu’ungafasi, James Parsons (C), Charlie Faumuina; Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Scott Scarfton; Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Steven Luatua. Replacements: Hame Faiva, Alex Hodgman, Sione Mafileo, Patrick Tuipulotu, Kara Pryor, Sam Nock; Ihaia West, TJ Faiane/Melani Nanai.