Sonny Bill Williams has been handed the leadership of the Blues as they prepare for what could be one of the most emotionally-wrought matches in the team's history.
Williams, named at second-five, will captain the struggling team against the Sunwolves at QBE Stadium, the home ground of Mike Tamoaieta, the popular prop who died suddenly last Friday, two days before the Blues played the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
With regular skipper Patrick Tuipulotu rested due to his high recent workload in accordance with the All Black welfare protocol, coach Leon MacDonald is certain Williams has what it takes to lead the team through what will be a very challenging evening after Tamoaieta's funeral tomorrow.
The Blues are clearly happy to be home after the tragic news broke before their loss to the Jaguares, their third in three games.
A tribute at the stadium is planned for Tamoaieta and the players will remember the 23-year-old with a special jersey. But there is a danger that they could lose their focus and their performances thus far have been notable for their lack of composure.
"It's been a tough week given everything that's happened, and the travel and external things going on," MacDonald said. "There has been a bit of balancing between rugby and life and at times we had to re-set on what's important – we had to do the right thing there and get through that as best we could.
"Obviously with three losses we're not stoked with where we are but contextually we're really proud of the way they played in Argentina all things considered – 24 hours before that there was a lot of upheaval.
"It's nice to be home with familiar people. It's another big week for us.
"We'll do it the best we can – like we did last week… the guys got really close as a group. We are dealing with it one day at a time."
Mike Tamoaieta died suddenly last weekend. Photo / Getty
Williams hasn't had a lot of captaincy experience during his well-travelled professional rugby and league career but he has impressed MacDonald as vice-captain in the absence of flanker Blake Gibson – a co-captain, who returns from injury against the Sunwolves.
The All Blacks midfielder has always had high standards but has admitted to maturing significantly in recent years. His coolness will be important if the Blues are to claim their first win of the season.
"Sonny has been a fantastic leader," MacDonald said. "He's really stepped up. I think he's thrived in his role as vice-captain. He's a cool head and he's driven … his experience out there will be critical."
Asked about the balance required between focusing on performance and delivering the right tribute to Tamoaieta, MacDonald said: "That's the biggest challenge. When you're too emotional you probably lose your ability to think clearly. It's quite taxing energy-wise too. The guys will want to play well for Mikey and put in a performance for him and we understand to do that we need clear heads as well."
MacDonald has long targeted this match for a start for promosing 20-year-old Harry Plummer at first-five, who takes over from Otere Black.
"We've got a lot of faith in Harry," he said. "He was right in contention for game one through his pre-season form."
Flanker Gibson replaces Dalton Papalii after a long-term injury, with lock Scott Scrafton on the reserves bench after a shoulder problem kept him from the game for nearly a year. Prop Ofa Tuungafasi is rested, but fellow All Black front rower Karl Tu'inukuafe retains his place.
"I've got a lot of confidence in where we are heading and what we're doing," MacDonald said as he considered the difficult start of his tenure at the Blues. "I understand the areas we are a little short in and we've got solutions there. For me it's to continue what we're doing. It would have been nice to get there on day one but realistically that was always going to be a tough ask, but we're in round three of a 16-week competition and there's definitely no panic from our end."
Blues team to play Sunwolves at QBE Stadium on Saturday, kick-off 7.35pm is:
15 Melani Nanai, 14 Tanielu Tele'a, 13 TJ Faiane, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Harry Plummer, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons, 1 Karl Tu'inukuafe.
Reserves: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Marcel Renata, 18 Lua Li, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Dalton Papalii, 21Sam Nock, 22 Otere Black, 23 Levi Aumua.