Weepu hits a century
All Black scrumhalf Piri Weepu will play his 100th Super Rugby game when the Blues go head-to-head with his old franchise, the Hurricanes, on Saturday.
Weepu will bring up his ton in his hometown of Wellington, while Rene Ranger will bring up his 50th game starting at centre.
Blues coach John Kirwan has named journeyman Chris Noakes at flyhalf, ahead of rookie Baden Kerr.
Kirwan said that Kerr isn't ready to start yet.
"I think Chris brings us that experience we need and he's driving the team well," Kirwan said.
"Baden has just really improved week after week. He came into the side and was probably not expressing himself as well as he could, but he's certainly been living up to our motto 'better never stops', so there's good pressure," the Blues coach said.
Kirwan said it would also be a special night for two of his most experienced players – Weepu and Ranger.
"It's a special achievement for Piri in front of his whanau and against his old team," the coach said.
"It was an emotional place for him to leave but we're proud he'll be playing his 100th Super Rugby game for us in front of his family with his new family.
"We've also got Rene's 50th game. He's a Blues man and played every single one of his 50 games with us so it's a special occasion for him too. It's just really important that all the guys do their jobs, these milestones are important and they're important if we put in a good performance."
Powerful Counties-Manukau wing Frank Halai will make his Super Rugby debut.
On the bench, Brendon O'Connor, Bryn Hall and Baden Kerr are poised to make their Super Rugby debuts, while Quentin MacDonald and Jackson Willison may also make their first appearances in a Blues jersey.
After three months of gruelling pre-season training, Kirwan said he couldn't wait to kick off the season and revealed how difficult it was to select his first starting XV.
"It was really tough, there are some really unlucky guys and I think that's how it should be," Kirwan said.
"One of the things we asked the players was to put us under pressure to get selected. When we started in December I thought 'well this is going to be interesting' but everyone has put their hands up, there wasn't one player in the team that wasn't considered except for Anthony Boric who is still coming back from injury so that's a pretty good situation to be in."
Kirwan said he was expecting a fierce challenge from a strong Hurricanes outfit.
"It's a good side. They've come off a couple of rebuilding years and they're feeling like they're ready to explode so I put them as firm favourites and us as underdogs so we've got nothing to lose. We're going to go out there, express ourselves and enjoy it."
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (captain), 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tom McCartney.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Angus Ta'avao, 18 Liaki Moli, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Bryn Hall, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Jackson Willison.
Date: Saturday, February 23
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19.35 (06.30 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Nick Briant (New Zealand)
TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)