HURRICANES vs FORCE, Friday 5.05pm AEST in Napier
Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea will make his return from a long-term knee injury from the bench against the Force.
The inspirational loose forward has been sidelined for six weeks after hurting himself against the Crusaders.
Fellow flanker Reed Prinsep will captain the second-placed Hurricanes with coach Jason Holland electing to rest stand-in skipper Dane Coles for the McLean Park match.
“There will obviously be some focus on Ardie’s return, which is great for us, but the squad as a whole are really looking forward to trying to improve week by week, which is our major focus,” Holland said.
“The competition has brought some real energy to everyone and we see that in our preparation.”
Asafo Aumua will start at hooker in place of Coles while Salesi Rayasi returns on the wing in place of the in-form Julian Savea.
Lock Isaia Walker-Leawere, No.8 Gareth Evans, halfback Luke Campbell and centre Peter Umaga-Jensen have also received promotions to the starting XV as Holland heavily rotates his squad.
Five-eighth Ruben Love remains sidelined with a shoulder injury sustained against the Waratahs at the SCG.
Meanwhile, Argentina playmaker Domingo Miotti has regained the Force No.10 jersey from Jake McIntyre, who suffered a nasty head clash in the loss to the Highlanders last weekend.
McIntyre is still going through the HIA return to play protocols so Miotti will resume his halves partnership with Pumas teammate Tomas Cubelli.
Toni Pulu’s return from suspension on the right wing creates a backline reshuffle, with Richard Kahui moving to outside centre and captain Kyle Godwin to No.12.
That leaves no room for Henry Taefu while former All Blacks lock Jeremy Thrush is named to start after being a late scratching last weekend.
Andrew Ready also gets a rare start at hooker ahead of Feleti Kaitu’u while former Test star Tevita Kuridrani will make his return off the bench after serving a three match suspension.
“Toni provides spark for us,” Force coach Tim Sampson said.
“He’s full of energy and he’s raring to go. Tevita is itching to get back. He’s a player that has played a lot of rugby over here against New Zealand and provides impact off the bench. Having that experience coming on at the back end of the game is going to be important for us.”
“The Hurricanes are a well-rounded team with a lot of strike power. If we apply pressure defensively in certain areas, then we’re positive about controlling the game. We’ve prepared well and we’re looking forward to Friday.”
HURRICANES (15-1): Jordie Barrett, Wes Goosen, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Ngani Laumape, Salesi Rayasi, Orbyn Leger, Luke Campbell, Gareth Evans, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Reed Prinsep (c), Scott Scrafton, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Tyrel Lomax, Asafo Aumua, Xavier Numia
Reserves: Ricky Riccitelli, Pouri Rakete-Stones, Alex Fidow, James Blackwell, Ardie Savea, Cam Roigard, Billy Proctor, Vince Aso
FORCE (15-1): Rob Kearney, Toni Pulu, Richard Kahui, Kyle Godwin (c), Jordan Olowofela, Domingo Miotti, Tomas Cubelli, Tim Anstee, Kane Koteka, Fergus Lee-Warner, Sitaleki Timani, Jeremy Thrush, Santiago Medrano, Andrew Ready, Tom Robertson
Reserves: Feleti Kaitu’u, Angus Wagner, Greg Holmes, Ryan McCauley, Brynard Stander, Ian Prior, Jack McGregor, Tevita Kuridrani
Referee: James Doleman (NZ)