Seconds out for Auckland
August 4, 2010
Brent Ward celebrates a try against North Harbour in round one © Getty Images
After a topsy-turvy opening round, Auckland lead the way at the top of the ITM Cup standings. Powered by flanker Daniel Braid they cruised to a bonus point derby win over North Harbour in round one, leaving reigning champions Canterbury and last season's beaten finalists Wellington in their wake.
Some of the Cantabs' attention this week will have been focused on Sonny Bill Williams' long-awaited bow for Belfast on Saturday, but the main squad need to kick-start their season with a win over Manawatu in Palmerston North on Thursday. Their opening round draw with Hawke's Bay was a scrappy affair highlighted by breakdown troubles but they will be keen to set the record straight against a Turbos side which suffered a 37-23 reversal to Southland in their season opener.
Halfback Matt George and wing Sam Monaghan will make their provincial debuts for Canterbury after a number of injuries last weekend. George steps in for Willi Heinz, who fractured a bone in his left hand while Monaghan starts on the left wing in place of Patrick Osborne, who injured his hip. Tu Umaga-Marshall moves from the wing to centre, replacing Ryan Crotty, who left the field against Hawke's Bay with a foot sprain.
Auckland's second fixture sees them take on Waikato at Eden Park on Saturday, with the visitors having secured bragging rights last weekend with a Chiefs derby win over Bay of Plenty. Braid will want more of the same from his side, including returning fullback Brent Ward, who scored a brace last time out.
Wellington braved apocalyptic conditions to get their campaign underway with a hard-fought 20-11 win over Tasman and they face round one's surprise package, Counties Manukau, at Westpac Stadium on Sunday. Powered by the evergreen Tana Umaga, Counties showed bucketloads of pace and flair to upset Otago last weekend and should the weather play fair there could be quite a spectacle in store for the Wellington faithful.
Umaga will not face his former club after coming down with the flu, instead taking a place on the bench in his role as assistant coach. Neemia Tialata leads Wellington, who boast plenty of firepower out wide in the form of Hosea Gear and promising youngster Julian Savea.
Local pride will not be the only thing to ensure a fiery exchange in Invercargill on Saturday as Southland and Otago face off, with the Stags putting their prized Ranfurly Shield on the line. Home fans will be parading the 'log o' wood' prior to the game and the players will be desperate for a third defence after two pre-season romps.
The home side have bracketed James Paterson and Mark Wells on the wing, with Robbie Robinson at fullback and James Wilson at fly-half. Otago call on All Blacks Adam Thomson and Ben Smith in their strating line-up, with the duo this week named in the New Zealand Sevens squad for the Commonwealth games.
Hawke's Bay enjoyed a superb season in 2009 and will want to build on their draw with Canterbury when they take on Bay of Plentyin Napier on Friday. Future Melbourne Rebel Luke Rooney starts at fullback for the Magpies and is joined in the back-three by All Black wing Zac Guildford. Colin Bourke leads the Steamers and will want his rugged, determined style to rub off on his charges.
Last weekend was kind to Northland, who opened their account in style with a win over Taranaki and Rene Ranger's side have ample opportunity to kick on in round two as they face North Harbour at Okara Park. Taranaki meanwhile face off against Chris Jack and Tasman in New Plymouth, with the visitors out to pick up a first win after their Wellington drenching.
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