Crunch time for final four
Scrum.com & NZPA
October 29, 2009
George Whitelock returns to lead Canterbury © Getty Images
The semi-finals of the Air New Zealand Cup arrive this weekend, with two showdowns set to fire the imaginations of the New Zealand rugby public. Reigning champions Canterbury were imperious in their march to the last-four and face the tournament's fairytale side, Hawke's Bay, on Friday.
In the other semi, Wellington face Southland. Consistency has been the key word for Southland this season while the Lions have their eyes firmly set on avenging last season's final loss to Canterbury.
Much of Hawke's Bay's success can be laid at the feet of coach Peter Russell, a man the players have grown to respect hugely, a big reason why the constant exodus of talent from the region has slowed to a trickle.
Having reached their third successive semi-final, Russell wants his team to go at least a step further than the last two attempts - 2007's 38-3 loss to Auckland and last year's 31-21 result against Canterbury in Christchurch. Russell is aware of a widespread feeling that his team have the ammunition to topple a red and blacks outfit shorn of eight All Blacks. And he relishes it.
"I suppose over the last couple of years we've gained a lot of respect around the country for what we're doing and I think the players here realise we can no longer just be called a team on the rise," he said "This is your third year in the top four so I think teams don't underestimate us anymore. They all make sure they have their game at the top of their level when they play us."
With the Ranfurly Shield gone, Canterbury have plenty to prove, having never won the national provincial title twice in succession. Their side appears more skilled and big-match savvy in the backline but will need to contain what should be a red-blooded Hawke's Bay onslaught up front.
George Whitelock has recovered from injury to skipper Canterbury from the openside flank. His brother, Sam, starts in the second-row alongside unfortunate All Black cast-off Isaac Ross. Stephen Brett wears No.10.
Wellington and Southland will take settled sides but a lopsided playing history to their semi-final. Southland will field just one change from the starting XV who lifted the Ranfurly Shield from Canterbury last Thursday, with No.8 Hua Tamariki introduced in place of the injured David Hall.
Hooker Brayden Mitchell comes onto the reserve bench as Highlanders hooker Hall was cover for that position behind starting hooker Jason Rutledge.
There are two Wellington changes, most notably the return of All Blacks halfback Piri Weepu at fly-half. Weepu, who missed All Blacks selection after battling injury for the last two months, will wear the No.10 jersey in place of the impressive Fa'atonu Fili. It allows classy halfback Alby Mathewson to start, restoring the combination employed by the Hurricanes this year and by Wellington in the closing weeks of their 2008 campaign.
The other change sees prop John Schwalger return from injury, pushing Arden David-Perrot to the reserves.
Southland must not only come down from the high of their Shield heist but must also overcome a dreadful record against Wellington. They have won just 23 of 89 games and haven't prevailed against the men from the capital since a 22-20 win in Invercargill seven years ago.
Southland's campaigns have ended at the hands of Wellington in the playoffs for each of the last two years, succumbing 45-3 in the 2007 quarterfinals and 28-19 in last year's semis.
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