Battle of Bays headlines crucial round
September 29, 2009
Zac Guildford of Hawke's Bay is congratulated by team-mates after one of his three tries last week © Getty Images
Bay of Plenty play host to Hawke's Bay in the battle of third versus fourth on Friday in the Air New Zealand Cup.
Only one point separates the two sides, so there are vital knockout places at stake as the home team look to maintain their perfect record at Rotorua International Stadium so far this season.
Conversely, Hawke's Bay have only secured one victory on the road but with the second best attack in the competition they will always pose a threat. Their current form has taken them to three straight victories, most recently a 35-30 win featuring a Zac Guildford hat-trick.
Bay of Plenty forward Luke Braid has been suspended for two weeks for a spear tackle in last week's game.
This week's Thursday night game sees Waikato visit North Harbour with both sides coming off wins last week. Eighth-placed Waikato are boosted by the return of three All Blacks in hooker Aled de Malmanche, scrum-half Brendon Leonard and fly-half Stephen Donald.
North Harbour make three changes of their own, with Ken Pisi replacing injured winger Anthony Tuitavake, Matt France in at scrum-half for Chris Smylie who has a hamstring complaint, and on a brighter note, lock James King returns from a rib injury and replaces Chris Smith.
Andrew Mailei was named to start at inside-centre for North Harbour although he has since been banned after being sent off for a spear tackle in last weekend's defeat of Counties-Manukau.
It's top against bottom on Friday at Growers Stadium as Counties-Manukau host Canterbury, where only a major upset will see anything other than a victory to the defending champions, who will be hunting a bonus point.
Making life more difficult for Counties-Manukau is the loss of star winger Lelia Masaga, who needs surgery on a shoulder injury he has been nursing for much of the season. Canterbury skipper George Whitelock returns after a two-week injury lay off while inside centre Ryan Crotty is also back for the visitors. Canterbury coach Rob Penney will take the opportunity to cycle his squad against a weaker opposition.
Second-placed Southland travel to Auckland, who are seventh, on Saturday in the round's second all top-half encounter. Both sides will be keen to return to the winners circle after defeats last time out.
Wellington welcome Manawatu to Westpac Stadium, where only Canterbury have managed to come and take away a victory this season. After winning three of their first four, it's now five straight defeats for Manawatu, so they will be desperate for a change in fortunes.
Wellington recall All Blacks Cory Jane and Neemia Tialata for the fixture. Jane starts at fullback, with Tialata slotting in to the front-row. His inclusion means an unusual move for skipper Jacob Ellison, who shifts from prop to lock. Manawatu's hopes have been given a sizeable boost with the return of in-form fly-half Aaron Cruden from injury.
Only one point separates Taranaki and Otago in ninth and tenth, who meet in the other Saturday match at Yarrow Stadium. Neither side can wait much longer if they are to make a late charge.
Otago have been boosted by the return of in-form All Black Adam Thomson, who slots in to the unfamiliar position of No.8. He joins skipper Alando Soakai in the back-row, with Glenn Dickson taking charge at fly-half.
Taranaki are withou Ace Malo, Ed Jenkins, Chris Walker, Jarrad Hoeata and Baydon Phillips after they were suspended for breaking the team's alcohol rules after last weekend's loss to Waikato.
Northland host Tasman to round out the weekend's matches on Sunday. Tasman are poised just outside the top four, and will have one eye on Friday's result at Rotorua, but they haven't won on the road since Round 2 when they beat North Harbour. Coincidentally, that was also the last time Northland tasted victory on home turf, so one of the teams will break an unwanted streak this weekend.
Kahn Fotuali'i continues out-of-position at fly-half for Tasman, with Andrew Goodman wearing the captain's armband in the centre.