As new head coach Leon MacDonald said after watching his players knock each other around in a physical training session in the blazing Auckland sun before they play the Crusaders at Eden Park on Saturday, you can't win or lose the competition in round one.

But you can get an indication of skill levels, fitness, and how hard your players want to work for each other. And of those at his disposal, few are impressing MacDonald more in all respects than centre Ma'a Nonu, a player under huge scrutiny on his return from France and first game in New Zealand since 2015.

"You guys know Ma'a reasonably well," MacDonald replied to a question about any messages he's given to the 36-year-old former All Black hoping to make a remarkable comeback to the black jersey this year.

"He's a smart guy, he's been around for a long time. He doesn't need pep talks. Probably the most impressive thing with Ma'a is that he's craving feedback and wants to make sure he's doing well and still learning.


"He'll probably be as nervous as the guys making their debuts in the weekend. It's a big game for him and obviously there are a lot of eyes on him. I know he'll be pretty excited about playing in New Zealand again and doing himself proud."

[Read more: Why Ma'a Nonu's World Cup aim is no clown act]

The early start to this Super Rugby season due to the World Cup in Japan, which kicks off in September, means most of the country is still in holiday mode, but a good performance or, heaven forbid, a victory, over their old rivals will turn a few heads away from the beach or cricket.

MacDonald is confident enough in second-five TJ Faiane's form to leave Sonny Bill Williams on the reserves bench and elsewhere there are clear signs that form has been rewarded rather than reputations.

"It's a big call to leave someone of the calibre of Sonny out but it's a testament to TJ's form and he thoroughly deserves selection," MacDonald said.

Ma'a Nonu and Blues coach Leon MacDonald. Photo / Photosport
Ma'a Nonu and Blues coach Leon MacDonald. Photo / Photosport

He believed Nonu would be fine in the No13 jersey rather than at No12 where he played the majority of his 103 caps. "The way we play the position is pretty fluid," MacDonald said. "They both play a similar role so it's only really at the start of play where the number is different."

And it does offer up the intriguing possibility of Williams and Nonu starting together in the midfield soon. On Sunday the Blues travel to South Africa to play the Sharks and then Buenos Aires to play the Jaguares, so MacDonald faces a juggling act as he welcomes back his All Blacks who were not allowed to play in the pre-season.

A possible advantage, though, is the naming on the bench of Williams, plus All Blacks props Karl Tu'inukuafe and Ofa Tuungafasi. The last time the Blues played the Crusaders they leaked four converted tries in a woeful final 16 minutes in Christchurch, but all the indications are that they will be far more competitive in the final quarter against the same team on Saturday.

"They're big men – I've held some pads against them and they take some stopping," MacDonald said of his front rowers. "They're going to be great coming off the bench."

The inclusion of abrasive Northlander Tom Robinson at blindside flanker, with captain Patrick Tuipulotu and Josh Goodhue in the second row, means the Blues have a very tall lineout and a fair bit of grunt around the field. This has the makings of a classic, or at least a high-scoring encounter with some metaphorical fireworks.

"We've been really impressed with Tom," MacDonald said. "He's got a great future ahead of him. The way he throws his body around, if he can keep it intact he's going to be fantastic."

Blues team to play the Crusaders at Eden Park on Saturday, kick-off 7.35pm: Michael Collins, Melani Nanai, Ma'a Nonu, TJ Faiane, Rieko Ioane, Otere Black, Jonathan Ruru, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson, Josh Goodhue, Patrick Tuipulotu ©, Sione Mafileo, James Parsons, Alex Hodgman.

Reserves: Matt Moulds, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Matt Matich, Augustine Pulu, Harry Plummer, Sonny Bill Williams.