Rugby: Feeling at home is key to Auckland's success

By Daniel Richardson

George Moala of Auckland celebrates after scoring a try during the round 7 ITM Cup match between Auckland and Canterbury. Photo / Getty Images
George Moala of Auckland celebrates after scoring a try during the round 7 ITM Cup match between Auckland and Canterbury. Photo / Getty Images

Unlocking the secret to improving their performances on the road will go a long way towards helping Auckland in their ITM Cup semifinal against Canterbury in Christchurch this afternoon.

Losses to Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Otago during the past couple of years, when Auckland were heavy favourites, have punctuated their campaigns and provided some head-scratching moments for coach Wayne Pivac.

Auckland were also nothing short of listless when they were hammered 38-16 in Wellington by the Lions in round eight of this year's competition. Which brings us to this weekend.

Auckland have travelled to Christchurch to meet the five-time-defending-champions Canterbury at AMI Stadium, and after today's game one side won't have to worry about training next week and can start planning their trips to the beach.

Canterbury have dominated provincial rugby since 2008 and have a stacked squad they can call upon.

Pivot Simon Hickey, who is in his second year with Auckland, said the team had spoken about ways to improve their efforts away from Eden Park.

"We haven't had a great track record away from home in the last season or two but I think a lot of it's probably about individual preparation," Hickey said.

"So we've put a little bit of focus on that - what guys are doing from when we get down to Canterbury then leading up to game-time. We've put a bit of an emphasis on that so hopefully it's better this week."

Auckland did a number on Canterbury in week seven of the regular season as they swept to a 39-19 win at Eden Park, but Hickey said the side knew Canterbury at home was a different beast.

"We know that Canterbury down in Canterbury are a bloody tough team to beat," Hickey said.

"But most of the focus has been on us, to be honest. We think that if we play with the ability we know we can, then we are in with a bloody good shot to win. So most of the focus has been on us this week."

Auckland's strengths lie in their backs. Fullback Lolagi Visinia and centre Malakai Fekitoa have enjoyed strong seasons, and the calming influence of second-five Hadleigh Parkes cannot be underestimated.

Auckland have struggled at the breakdown in recent weeks but the return of flanker Luke Braid to the starting XV will give them some steel in the contact areas.

Meanwhile, Canterbury halfback Andy Ellis has made a miraculous recovery from a dislocated shoulder suffered last week in the side's romp over North Harbour, and will claim the No 9 jersey today.

Towering lock Dominic Bird will make his long-awaited return from a pectoral injury and has been named on the bench.

But the side will be without the experience of hooker Corey Flynn who is out with a neck problem.

Despite their injury concerns, Canterbury still have a powerful line-up, including three Whitelock brothers - Adam, George and Luke - Ryan Crotty, Johnny McNicholl and steady pivot Tyler Bleyendaal.

Canterbury have been installed as hot favourites and given their imposing record of recent years it's easy to see why.

Auckland will need to find a way to perform away from home if they want to run the Cantabrians close.

- NZ Herald

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