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June 10, 2015 at 3:33 am

In a bid to revive his All Blacks hopes, Charles Piutau will make his return on Friday night against the Highlanders at Eden Park.

The All Blacks utility has been sidelined for the past five weeks with a knee injury but after a quicker-than-expected recovery he will be keen to press his claims for national selection in his final appearance for the Blues, before linking with Irish club Ulster next year.

Piutau’s return will be welcomed by a struggling Blues outfit largely devoid of experience.

All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu has been handed the captaincy in his 175th and final Super Rugby match. Brendon O’Connor and Angus Ta’avao also feature in their final games for the franchise, while James Parsons¬† plays his 50th match.

Twelve players remain on the injury list as well as three – Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson and Tevita Li – at the Junior World Cup in Italy. That paves the way for a first Super Rugby start at blindside flanker for North Harbour’s Chris Vui, while Northland’s former Tongan international Jack Ram comes into the reserves for the first time.

Jamison Gibson-Park has also been preferred over Jimmy Cowan at halfback; Joe Edwards makes his first start of the year at No 8 and Lolagi Visinia returns to the bench.

Mealamu is not letting his thoughts wander past the job in hand on Friday.

“I’ve been blessed to have been able to play in Super Rugby for 15 years, and this is certainly not the end of my rugby quite yet. I will make a final decision on that at the end of the year,” Mealamu said.

“In some ways it will be emotional to share my final Super Rugby game on Friday with my teammates, my friends and especially my family.

“This has been a tough season for the Blues but we can go out on a good note knowing we have performed to our best.
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“We have some players leaving as well and we have James who is reaching an important milestone, so we owe it to them and to ourselves to be the best we can be both individually and collectively on Friday.”

After being belted by the Hurricanes in Napier last week, the Highlanders are expected to recall two All Blacks – Aaron Smith and Ben Smith – in the push for home advantage in the playoffs, but Malakai Fekitoa is unlikely for Friday’s clash due to a groin injury.