Akira Ioane, a Blues ironman over the past two years – he played in every game and racked up big minutes in each one – is a surprise omission from Leon MacDonald's team to play the Chiefs in Super Rugby's first game of the season on Friday.

The loose forward, who has had to deal with the disappointment of missing last year's World Cup, now has a new challenge with which to start the year: deposing the in-form Hoskins Sotutu for the No8 jersey.

A fortnight ago Ioane mentioned in an interview that the fallout from his World Cup omission and reaction from some among the public and media had been difficult to deal with mentally. He also admitted he didn't enjoy the Mitre 10 Cup and needed a break away from the game.

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But MacDonald said Ioane's absence had nothing to do with his physical condition or approach, merely that he couldn't overlook 21-year-old Sotutu, the son of former Blues wing Waisake.

"Akira is unlucky," MacDonald said. "He was one of the tough calls. He's trained well, he was in good condition. He's fit and hungry. But I talked about the competition in the squad and Hoskins has been one of the standouts as well.

"It's a luxury to have two quality players to pick from. We said to the squad that form in pre-season is critical and we're rewarding Hoskins for being outstanding. He's got Aki breathing down his neck, so there is pressure on Hos to stay there and I know he's excited about his opportunity."

Sotutu, a standout in his team's two pre-season wins over the Chiefs and Hurricanes, has the honour of starting at Eden Park against the Blues' closest rivals, with Dalton Papalii at blindside flanker and debutant Tony Lamborn another surprise selection at openside. Blake Gibson is on the reserves bench as cover.

Tom Robinson, a loose forward with the ability to play lock, starts in the second row alongside captain Patrick Tuipolotu, with Rieko Ioane on the left wing and English test player Joe Marchant starting at centre. Stephen Perofeta, in sparkling form in the 29-28 pre-season win over the Hurricanes at Onewa Domain, starts at No10 as predicted.

Blues first five eighth Stephen Perofeta. Photo / Photosport
Blues first five eighth Stephen Perofeta. Photo / Photosport

MacDonald is clearly looking for form, pace and mobility against a Chiefs team expected to be one of the competition's major threats this season, but Akira's absence from even the bench qualifies as a metaphorical eyebrow raiser.

"Aki is relishing the competition," MacDonald added. "Hoskins has brought the best out of him. You can see it on the training field. It's a good sign that we have genuine competition in all positions. It's not because Aki is playing poorly because he's not, he's playing really well.

"He's a competitor and he won't like not playing and nor should he. You'd expect him to be a little disappointed not to play. Knowing him, he'll keep putting his hand up."


One of the reasons why Steve Hansen didn't include Akira in last year's World Cup squad was because he felt the loose forward was playing like a "tired athlete". MacDonald obviously wants a positive start to the season – his second at the franchise – but he's clearly playing a long game as well, as far as Akira is concerned, although keeping the 24-year-old engaged could be a challenge in itself.

"A lot of guys played a lot of minutes and in the end there was a form dip," MacDonald said when reflecting on last year's 13th finish out of 15 teams.

He added: "It's a tough competition and we felt we were in the fight last year. The challenge for us is to take that next step and making sure we've learned from those close losses last year.

"I've got a huge amount of confidence in this group. You've only got to watch how hard they train and the effort they put in on the field. There's a real desire to do well. We've trained really well. We can only focus week by week, there's no point in focusing on the final because we're nowhere near it. This week is about starting well and we're looking forward to that."

Blues team to play the Chiefs at Eden Park on Friday, kick-off 7.05pm: 15. Matt Duffie, 14. Mark Telea, 13. Joe Marchant, 12. TJ Faiane, 11. Rieko Ioane, 10. Stephen Perofeta, 9. Jonathan Ruru, 8. Hoskins Sotutu, 7. Tony Lamborn, 6. Dalton Papalii, 5. Tom Robinson, 4. Patrick Tuipulotu ©, 3. Sione Mafileo, 2. Kurt Eklund, 1. Alex Hodgman.

Reserves: 16. Ray Niuia, 17. Karl Tu'inukuafe, 18. Ofa Tuungafasi, 19. Josh Goodhue, 20. Blake Gibson, 21. Sam Nock, 22. Harry Plummer, 23. Emoni Narawa.