Play-off places still up for grabs
September 23, 2009
Canterbury's Casey Laulala takes on the Taranaki defence during last weekend's clash in Christchurch © Getty Images
Canterbury will be confident of cementing their place at the top of the Air New Zealand Cup table when they play host to strugglers Northland on Saturday.
The defending champions notched their sixth win of the season against Taranaki last weekend but are unlikely to get everything their way against a Northland side that breathed life into their flagging campaign with a much-needed win against Manawatu last time out.
Returning All Black squad members Colin Slade and Wyatt Crockett slot in for the champions. Slade comes in at fullback and Crockett at loose-head prop. Their inclusion means Sean Maitland moves to the right wing and Andrew Olorenshaw to the reserves bench. Openside flanker George Whitelock, who missed last weekend's win over Taranaki with a high ankle sprain, remains sidelined.
Northland again call on the services of Lachie Munro at fly-half, with Jared Payne leading the side from fullback.
The latest round of action gets underway with Wellington welcoming Southland to the Westpac Stadium on Thursday night where English referee Wayne Barnes will take charge. The Lions went down to Waikato in Hamilton last weekend and require a win to stop their slide and keep their semi-final hopes alive.
The return of All Blacks Cory Jane, Hosea Gear and Rodney So'oialo gives them every chance of doing so against their high-flying opposition.
Southland are able to call on Scott Cowan and Robbie Robinson at halfback, although All Black Jimmy Cowan was unavailable, while skipper Jamie Mackintosh has been bracketed alongside Fai Mika in the front-row.
The action then switches to North Shore City where North Harbour take on Counties Manukau. The hosts' victory over Auckland at Eden Park in Round 8 lifted them off the bottom of the table and they will be hopeful of a similar result against a Counties side recovering from their sixth defeat of the season that left them rooted to the bottom of the table.
Mike Harris wears No.10 for Harbour, with All Black lock Anthony Boric taking the captain's armband.
Elsewhere on Friday, Taranaki and Waikato meet in a mid-table clash at Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth. Waikato remain alive in the competition after beating Wellington in Hamilton where they showed the desperation and enthusiasm necessary to collect their fourth win. But Taranaki will still have one eye on the play-offs despite that mauling at the hands of Canterbury that saw them leak four tries.
Waikato boss Chris Gibbes has named the same forward pack that beat Wellington last week and in the backs winger Tim Mikkelson gets a start ahead of Henry Speight.
Hawke's Bay surged into the top four last weekend after returning to winning ways against Otago and will be hoping to cement their place when they tackle Manawatu at McLean Park in Napier. The visitors were beaten by Northland last weekend but have been bolstered by the news that fly-half Aaron Cruden has re-signed for next season.
Cruden is out this week, with Isaac Thompson in at fly-half, but Tomasi Cama and Johnny Leota form a potent centre partnership. Josh Bradnock starts at openside and skippers the team.
In the penultimate match of the round, high-flying Bay of Plenty travel to Carisbrook to take on Otago. Bay of Plenty enter the clash on the back of a home win against Tasman while Otago suffered their sixth defeat of the season at the hands of Hawke's Bay.
The consistent Mike Delany starts at fly-half for the Steamers, with Colin Bourke out to impress at No.8 after being talked up as a possible All Blacks tourist in November. For the home side, rugby league convert Michael Witt drops to the bench and Glenn Dickson starts in the No.10 jersey.
The weekend's final game sees Tasman play host to Auckland at Trafalgar Park in Nelson. Both sides failed to impress in defeats to Bay of Plenty and North Harbour respectively and will need to raise their game if they are to make the post-season.
The visitors' hopes were dealt a further blow this week with injuries to prop Paea Fa'anunu and fly-half Daniel Bowden. Fa'anunu has dislocated a knee cap that will end his season and Bowden suffered a high ankle sprain and torn ligaments that will sideline him for at least a month. Charlie Faumuina will take over from Fa'anunu at prop while Ash Moeke steps up to fill the starting No.10 jersey in place of Bowden.