The Blues will open their transtasman Super Rugby season in Melbourne on Saturday night without captain Patrick Tuipulotu and in-form All Blacks loose forward Dalton Papalii.
Fresh off a week break, after they failed to reach the Super Rugby Aotearoa final, the Blues are preparing to travel to Australia for the first time in over year where they will meet the Rebels as intrigue in the cross-over matches builds.
While the Blues are expected to win against a side that recently pushed their head coach out the door, they will board the plane without two influential forwards in Tuipulotu and Papalii.
Rookie lock Sam Darry sported heavy protection over his ear at Tuesday training and is expected to miss the Rebels match, while wing Emoni Narawa suffered a serious high ankle sprain playing club rugby in Tauranga last weekend and will be sidelined for up to two months.
It's cruel timing for Narawa, with Caleb Clarke's decision to join the New Zealand sevens team opening a spot on the left wing.
Tuipulotu hasn't played since injuring his neck/shoulder against the Chiefs on March 27. After six weeks of nursing the nagging blow he's now making positive progress, but needs time to rebuild contact conditioning and is therefore targeting a round three return when the Blues host the Brumbies at Eden Park.
In Tuipulotu's ongoing absence, Tom Robinson will retain the Blues' captaincy and seek to improve his two-from-two leadership record this season.
"Paddy was in a position where we didn't know when he would be back but we've had some really positive signs I've just watched him put a few shots on and build up his contact work so that's exciting for us," Blues assistant coach Daniel Halangahu said after All Blacks coaches Ian Foster and Scott McLeod attended training.
"When these guys take time out they need to build their bodies back up again."
Papalii continues to progress the medial ligament damage he suffered to his knee in the loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch two weeks ago.
"Dalton is close but he's someone we can't risk so we'll give him another week to come right," Halangahu said.
"Sam is close this week but as a guy in his rookie season we've got to look after him as well. He's going to play a lot of rugby for this club over the next few years so we're picking our moments when we use these young guys."
Halangahu, a product of Belmont, New South Wales, played 74 matches for the Waratahs from 2006-12. Now charged with running the Blues attack, he has been impressed by the Super Rugby AU competition won by the Reds in dramatic fashion over the Brumbies last week.
"There's been a lot of excitement around Australian rugby because they're starting to play a brand that suits them and they're developing their own style.
"The criticism over the best part of a decade is they've copied a lot of what New Zealand teams do and now they're doing their own thing."
Melbourne Rebels coach Dave Wessels jumped before he was pushed two weeks ago after guiding his team to three wins from eight matches this season and a 44 per cent win rate in his four years at the helm. Attack coach Shaun Berne was also let go. Rebels defence coach Kevin Foote has since assumed the interim head coach role.
"There's been a huge upheaval at the Melbourne Rebels. I know their coaching team and they've been working hard but they didn't reach the final so they've made changes. We know they're dangerous because any team that changes head and assistant coaches respond pretty strongly.
"It's exciting for everyone to be going up against something different. You bang your heads against your brother for long enough it's always great to go to the park and play against guys you don't know."