Official team lists and injury news for this week's round of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Highlanders v Crusaders
7:05pm Friday, February 26
Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Former All Blacks flanker Liam Squire will make his Super Rugby return from the bench for the Highlanders southern derby against the Crusaders.
The 24-test international hasn't played since the 2019 season, when he asked not to be selected for the All Blacks, due to ongoing mental health issues, before signing on with Japan's NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.
The 29-year-old joins pivot Josh Ioane and hooker Liam Coltman on a strong substitutes bench for their season-opening showdown at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
New recruit Billy Harmon will wear the No.7 jersey against his former team, forming an impressive loose forward trio with Shannon Frizell and Marino Mikaele Tu'u.
Aaron Smith co-captains the side from halfback, with hooker Ash Dixon, while Connor Garden-Bachop and Solomon Alaimalo make their franchise debuts at wing and fullback respectively.
Also debuting are Bryn Evans and Hugh Renton, who'll both come off the bench.
Highlanders: 1-Daniel Lienert-Brown, 2-Ash Dixon (co-captain), 3-Siate Tokolahi, 4-Josh Dickson, 5-Jack Regan, 6-Shannon Frizell, 7-Billy Harmon, 8-Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 9-Aaron Smith, 10-Mitch Hunt, 11-Jona Nareki, 12-Sio Tomkinson, 13-Ngantungane Punivai, 14-Connor Garden-Bachop, 15-Solomon Alaimalo
Reserves: 16-Liam Coltman, 17-Josh Hohneck, 18-Jeff Thwaites, 19-Bryn Evans, 20-Liam Squire, 21-Folau Fakatava, 22-Josh Ioane, 23-Hugh Renton
After missing the entire 2020 Super Rugby campaign through injury, All Blacks lock Scott Barrett will return to lead the champion Crusaders, when they take on the Highlanders in their 2021 season-opener.
Barrett will form a formidable second row with fellow international Sam Whitelock, while Leicester Fainga'anuku and Dallas McLeod will fill the voids left by injured All Blacks George Bridge and Braydon Ennor.
Vice-captain David Havili sits out the encounter under concussion protocols. Prop Fletcher Newell and back Chay Fihaki will make their Crusaders debuts off the bench.
"It's a special week for Fletcher and Chay, who have impressed over the pre-season and have worked extremely hard for this opportunity," says coach Scott Robertson.
Crusaders: 1-Joe Moody, 2-Codie Taylor, 3-Michael Alaalatoa, 4-Scott Barrett (c), 5-Samuel Whitelock, 6-Ethan Blackadder, 7-Tom Christie, 8-Cullen Grace, 9-Bryn Hall, 10-Richie Mo'unga, 11-Leicester Fainga'anuku, 12-Dallas McLeod, 13-Jack Goodhue, 14-Sevu Reece, 15-Will Jordan
Reserves: 16-Brodie McAlister, 17-George Bower, 18-Fletcher Newell, 19-Quinten Strange, 20-Sione Havili Talitui, 21-Mitchell Drummond, 22-Fergus Burke, 23-Chay Fihaki
Blues v Hurricanes
7:05pm, Saturday, February 27
Sky Stadium, Wellington
Props James Lay and Nepo Laulala, and loose forward Adrian Choat will debut for the Blues, when they take on the Hurricanes in the season-opener.
Lay, a Manu Samoa international, has previously played professionally for Bristol Bears. All Blacks front-rower Laulala has moved north, after 41 outings for the Chiefs over the past five years.
"Adrian had an excellent Mitre 10 Cup competition and came in as a replacement, and was really energetic in our pre-season," says coach Leon MacDonald. "He is a smart and versatile loose forward."
Nine All Blacks will line up for the Blues, who have the luxury off bringing an All Blacks propping tandem of Karl Tu'inukuafe and Ofa Tuungafasi off the bench.
Blues: 1-James Lay, 2-Kurt Eklund, 3-Nepo Laulala, 4-Patrick Tuipulotu, 5-Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 6-Akira Ioane, 7-Dalton Papalii, 8-Hoskins Sotutu, 9-Sam Nock, 10-Otere Black, 11-Caleb Clarke, 12-Harry Plummer, 13-Rieko Ioane, 14-Mark Telea, 15-Stephen Perofeta
Reserves: 16-Luteru Tolai, 17-Karl Tu'inukuafe, 18-Ofa Tuungafasi, 19-Josh Goodhue, 20-Tom Robinson, 21-Adrian Choat, 22-Jonathan Ruru, 23-Tanielu Tele'a
All Blacks loose forward Ardie Savea will captain the Hurricanes in his 100th appearance for the franchise.
With TJ Perenara's departure for Japan, Jonathan Taumateine start at halfback, forming an inside combination with Jackson Garden-Bachop. Reserve half Luke Campbell eyes a Hurricanes debut off the bench.
Hurricanes: 1-Fraser Armstrong, 2-Asafo Aumua, 3-Tyrel Lomax, 4-James Blackwell, 5-Scott Scrafton, 6-Vaea Fifita, 7- Ardie Savea (c), 8-Devan Flanders, 9-Jonathan Taumateine, 10-Jackson Garden-Bachop, 11-Julian Savea, 12-Ngani Laumape, 13-Billy Proctor, 14-Wes Goosen, 15-Jordie Barrett
Reserves: 16-Ricky Riccitelli, 17-Xavier Numia, 18-Alex Fidow, 19-Reed Prinsep, 20-Du'Plessis Kirifi, 21-Luke Campbell, 22-Peter Umaga-Jensen, 23-Salesi Rayasi
Join us for live updates of both Super Rugby Aotearoa games this weekend