Auckland look to conjure magic solution
September 18, 2008
A jovial Shane Howarth suggested he would have to liberate seven rabbits from his rugby coaching hat for Auckland to stop unbeaten Wellington lifting the Ranfurly Shield on Saturday night.
Howarth's selection of Isaia Toeava at first five-eighth today neatly encapsulated the plight of a province whose 125th anniversary celebrations appear destined to be marked in muted fashion at Eden Park.
Toeava, whose international career was resurrected part way through the Tri-Nations, is the only current Auckland All Black available to try to prevent Wellington claiming the Log o' Wood for the first time since 1981.
Toeava, more at home in midfield, at fullback or on the wing , will make his third appearance at pivot this season after Lachie Munro sustained a season-ending shoulder dislocation against Bay of Plenty last weekend.
"Without being silly it's a bit by default," Howarth said of Toeava's move close to the action. "Obviously he likes the wider space of the field, but he's such a talented player he'll slot back in fine."
Toeava did not sound as convinced.
"It's not where I want to play but I've got to do it for the team. There's no one else."
Toeava played at 10 against Manawatu and Waikato but was not happy with his kicking game, an area Howarth and Munro have sought to remedy this week.
Howarth thought Wellington were never in a stronger position to lift the trophy.
"I think we'll have to pull six or seven rabbits out of the hat," he smiled. "You've just got to look at both campaigns. We are underdogs end of story. They're seven and 0, every single game has been a bonus point (four tries).
"We've been up and down on a bit of a rollercoaster. We're all right at the moment though we're going to have to be well above their game to hold this."
One of the keys this week was reinforcing the self belief derived from wins over Southland and Bay of Plenty.
"If we can get the boys thinking the right way and thinking positively and our skills are up...every game of game of rugby, you've always got a chance," he said.
Howarth said the edgy Shield defence over Southland and last weekend's 25-20 win in Bay of Plenty -- after Auckland trailed 3-13 -- were indicators his young side was developing.
"The character shown against the Bay...13-3 down, you've lost three pretty strong boys (Munro, Joe Rokocoko and Daniel Braid)...just the character they showed to come back can only help the confidence of the boys."
The second half comeback marked the first time Auckland has nailed a four-try bonus point this campaign -- and their first win away from home.
Still, despite those advances, the Wellington side is a different beast to any they have encountered so far.
"They're scoring heaps of tries. Wellington are us last year," Howarth said, reeling off their core of experienced players.
He cited John Schwalger, Ross Filipo, Hosea Gear, Tamati Ellison and Cory Jane as boasting the sort of nous and big game temperament the current Auckland side could only develop over time.
Howarth still hoped Braid would be available to create havoc in the loose though his left ankle sprain was still causing concern.
Braid has been bracketed with faithful deputy Onosai'i Auva'a.
In the other changes to the starting line-up Rokocoko (hamstring) has been replaced by his cousin -- and former Southland wing -- Watisoni Lotawa.
Prop Nick White earns his 89th cap, starting at tighthead ahead of Charlie Faumuina.