Southland eye Ranfurly upset
Scrum.com & NZPA
October 18, 2009
Can Canterbury hang on to the Ranfurly Shield? © Getty Images
Auckland Bay of Plenty Canterbury Counties Manukau Hawke's Bay Manawatu New Zealand North Harbour Northland Otago Southland Taranaki Tasman Waikato Wellington
All eyes will be on Air New Zealand Cup leaders Canterbury when they line up against Southland for their fifth and final Ranfurly Shield defence of the year. Thursday's Christchurch fixture kicks off the final round of the tournament and Southland, enmeshed in a battle for a playoffs spot, should provide Canterbury with a litmus test of their pedigree going into the knockout stage.
Defending champions Canterbury, along with Wellington, are feeling the pinch most in a round stripped of All Blacks who are preparing for next month's tour to Japan and Europe. Southland will just be without international halfback Jimmy Cowan from their previous match against Taranaki which they won 29-13. Missing their internationals, Canterbury have been left looking vulnerable to a shield raid.
They have made nine changes to their starting line-up from last week's match against Hawke's Bay which they won 27-20. They will be without All Blacks Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter, Andy Ellis, Brad Thorn, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn and Wyatt Crockett while centre Casey Laulala and wing James Paterson have been relegated to the bench.
"Southland will fancy their chances against us as we won't have our All Blacks available," a wary Canterbury coach Rob Penney said. "The Stags will want to get their hands on the Shield for the first time since 1959, plus they will want to cement a place in the semi-finals. "They've got fairly rugged forwards and will compete in the set pieces and breakdowns. Their backs are handy too - Robbie Robinson is a class act and their wing Pehi Te Whare is a good finisher."
Defeat though, will not stop Canterbury hosting a home semi-final. They sit proud at the top of the table with 46 points and cannot be overtaken.
However, with just four points separating Wellington, Southland, Waikato, Hawke's Bay and Auckland, none of them are guaranteed post-regular season action. Wellington, on 39 points, can nail down a home semi-final by beating Tasman in Blenheim on Friday, while Waikato and Auckland, on 36 and 35 respectively, meet the next night in Hamilton, with each needing a win to keep their top four hopes alive.
Even though they are missing their All Blacks Tamati Ellison, Andrew Hore, Cory Jane, Ma'a Nonu, Rodney So'oialo, and Neemia Tialata, last year's runners-up should still carry too much firepower for Tasman. Wellington will, however, have centre Conrad Smith available for the Tasman match after he was released from All Blacks training.
Hawke's Bay, fifth on 36 points, need to beat lowly Northland on Friday, but can be overtaken depending on the other results. If they win in Whangarei, their cause will be aided by Southland beating Canterbury. With Wellington and Hawke's Bay wins on the cards, Auckland's semi-finals chances, if they beat Waikato, will probably be tied to a Canterbury victory over Southland.
The other matches see Manawatu and North Harbour meet at Palmerston North while Otago host Counties-Manukau, both on Saturday.
Bay of Plenty and Taranaki bring the curtain down on the regular season on Sunday at Mount Maunganui.
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