Rugby: Deck stacked against Lions in clash of the titans tonight

By Daniel Richardson

The loose forward battle between the unbeaten teams will be worth the trek to the ground alone

Colin Slade will likely cover the kicking duties this evening. Photo / Getty Images
Colin Slade will likely cover the kicking duties this evening. Photo / Getty Images

Finally, a heavyweight clash is upon us. After five rounds of jostling and jiving, two of the ITM Cup's marquee teams will meet at the Cake Tin today.

There's always plenty of feeling around a Wellington versus Canterbury game and the winner of this evening's contest will go a long way to locking up top spot in the Premiership, which would present the luxury of home-field advantage throughout the finals next month.

Both teams have yet to taste defeat this season and are stacked with Super Rugby talent.

Wellington have been shorn of a host of injured players recently - Ross Filipo, Sinoti Sinoti, Faifili Levave, Frae Wilson and Matt Proctor - while they had to begin their campaign without Cory Jane and Api Naikatini.

Canterbury have lost their goalkicking ace Tom Taylor, who has been whisked away to join the All Blacks to cover Dan Carter, but they have an able deputy in Colin Slade who will likely cover the duties with the tee tonight.

The Cantabrians have won the past five national provincial titles and have enjoyed a period of dominance that has been unrivalled in this competition's history.

They've got Luke Whitelock, Matt Todd and Slade back from the All Blacks' wider training squad, while Wellington will be without their internationals Jeremy Thrush and Dane Coles. Halfback TJ Perenara was also diagnosed with a stress fracture this week. The deck is stacked against the Lions but Wellington skipper Victor Vito said his side would lift this weekend.

"You'd be lying if you said it's just another game," Vito said. "But at the same time we've had some games before that we would have been disappointed if we'd dropped any of them, so with Canterbury we are going in to a little bit of our 'test window'. We've got teams like Canterbury, Waikato and Auckland [in the next three weeks] and now we've got the top two teams going at it this weekend and that's probably our main focus."

The loose forward battle will be worth the trek to the ground alone with Vito leading a powerful trio complemented by Brad Shields and tearaway openside Ardie Savea, while Canterbury boast the Whitelock brothers, George and Luke, with Matt Todd in the No 7 jersey.

Wellington have enjoyed a nine-day break between outings after they disposed of Bay of Plenty 33-16 last Thursday, which has allowed Charlie Ngatai (finger) to recover, while centre Tim Bateman nursed a calf injury this week.

The New Zealand Maori representative sat out training at Rugby League Park in Newtown on Thursday but passed a fitness test at Wellington's captain's run yesterday. Lock Mark Reddish has also made a welcome return to the second row after recovering from a recent head knock.

Tongan international Tomasi Palu will start at halfback for Wellington following Wilson's injury.

These two teams are likely to meet again in the competition's final late next month, although Auckland will have something to say about that during the next few weeks.

"We are expecting this game to be at a level of intensity you'd normally get in a final and we're approaching it as such," Canterbury coach Scott Robertson said.

The bookies can't split them with Wellington and Canterbury both paying $1.87 head to head for the win.

Wgton v Canty

Westpac Stadium, 5.35pm tonight

Wellington: Charlie Ngatai, Ambrose Curtis, Tim Bateman, Shaun Treeby, Joe Hill, Lima Sopoaga, Tomasi Palu, Victor Vito (c), Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Kaipati Gaualofa, Mark Reddish, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Motu Matu'u, John Schwalger. Reserves: Reg Goodes, Eric Sione, Genesis Mamea, Adam Hill, Kayne Hammington, Tau Mamea, Afa Fa'atau.

Canterbury: Colin Slade, Patrick Osborne, Adam Whitelock, Ryan Crotty, Johnny McNicholl, Tyler Bleyendaal, Willi Heinz, Luke Whitelock, Matt Todd, George Whitelock (c), Matt Symons, Luke Katene, Nepo Laulala, Corey Flynn, Joe Moody. Reserves: Ben Funnell, Paea Fa'anunu, Joel Everson, Jordan Taufua, Andy Ellis, Rob Thompson, Milford Keresoma.

- APNZ

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