The Reds have welcomed back a pair of fit-again Wallabies but have lost three in-form members of their forward pack.
The Queensland Reds have regained the services of Wallabies pair James O’Connor and Hunter Paisami but have lost in-form forwards trio Fraser McReight, Harry Wilson and Richie Asiata for Saturday’s daunting assignment against the Blues at Eden Park.
Flyhalf O’Connor will make a welcome return from a knee injury that has sidelined him since the Reds’ 36-32 win over the Melbourne Rebels on April 15.
The Queenslanders have lost the three games O’Connor has missed – all against New Zealand opposition – to slide down to sixth spot on the Super Rugby Pacific ladder.
His class, composure and kicking game will be crucial if the Reds are to have any chance of snapping their losing streak against the first-placed Blues, who have won 10 from 11 this season.
“To have James back steering the ship … it’s massive for the belief of the side,” Reds captain Tate McDermott said.
“Just to have someone else out to lean on and speak to the boys, particularly in those tough moments, is going to be really crucial not only for these next three weeks (of the regular season) but in the playoffs as well.”
Centre Paisami’s return from a shoulder injury will add some power and punch to Queensland’s backline.
“It’s just another experienced player who has played quite a bit for the Wallabies, and he knows the insides and outs of this team as well,” McDermott said.
“To have Hunter in there as a direct ball runner but also a distributor, and his defence as well … it’s good to have him back.”
However, the Reds’ joy about the return of Paisami and O’Connor has been tempered by the loss of No.8 Wilson (concussion), flanker McReight (flu) and hooker Asiata (flu).
“We could stand here all day and say who’s out. We’ve got a job to do this weekend and the guys that get picked will do the job,” McDermott said.
Versatile front-row veteran Albert Anae will replace Asiata at hooker, with a new-look starting back-row to include flankers Connor Vest and Angus Scott-Young, while the in-form Seru Uru shifts from the side of the scrum to No.8.
There are two other changes in the Reds pack, with prop Dane Zander and lock Angus Blyth to start at the expense of benched pair Harry Hoopert and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto respectively.
The intimidating Salakaia-Loto has perhaps paid the price for an ordinary defensive display in Queensland’s 27-19 loss to the Highlanders last Friday night at Suncorp Stadium.
However, McDermott didn’t believe the reason Salakaia-Loto had been left out of the starting 15 was form-related.
“We need experience on the bench, particularly if we’re going to go toe-to-toe with these Kiwis,” the Reds skipper said.
“We’ve seen the first 40 minutes of every game, we’ve been the best side, so you look at that second half, you’ve got someone like Lukhan coming off the bench really adding not only his full game but his energy, and his experience, (which) is probably the big one.”
Reds: Dane Zander, Albert Anae, Feao Fotuaika, Ryan Smith, Angus Blyth, Connor Vest, Angus Scott-Young, Seru Uru, Tate McDermott (c), James O’Connor, Jordan Petaia, Hunter Paisami, Josh Flook, Suliasi Vunivalu, Jock Campbell. Bench: Matt Faessler, Harry Hoopert, Sef Fa’agase, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Tuaina Tualima, Kalani, Thomas, Hamish Stewart, Lawson Creighton.
Originally published as James O’Connor and Hunter Paisami named in Queensland Reds side to meet the Blues at Eden Park