Mitre 10 Cup Premiership
Auckland v Waikato
Eden Park, Auckland
Blake Gibson is back.
The loose forward has endured a horror run of injuries, but will line up in the No 7 jersey for Auckland in tomorrow's Premiership clash with Waikato at Eden Park.
This will be his first game for Auckland since the 2015 season opener in Invercargill and just his 11th in all. While it will be interesting to see how he copes with the new breakdown rules, there is breadth to his game, so he can make an impact other than just in the collisions.
"Blake has been like a cat on hot bricks, he can't wait. He leads by example and it's fantastic to have him back. It'll be tough for him because he hasn't played under the new rules so he is going to have to be patient," says Auckland coach Nick White.
There is further good news for Auckland, strengthened by the inclusion of All Blacks Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Patrick Tuipulotu after an uneven 25-24 win over Hawke's Bay on Wednesday night in Napier.
"It's always good to have them back and perfect timing with the young boys in the front row so we can give them a break. Hopefully they'll get through 80 minutes tomorrow and they'll add a lot to our team, said White.
On the debit side, Taleni Seu is sidelined after a head knock on Wednesday night. Sam Prattley, Melani Nanai and Lolagi Visinia were all injured against Northland and are likely to miss a few more matches before returning. Steven Luatua is still out with an ankle injury.
White says Auckland and Waikato are similar sides, and tomorrow promises to be a tasty match-up. Waikato are buoyed by the inclusion of All Blacks Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Damian McKenzie and have made four changes from the side that edged Manawatu 19-10 in last Sunday's Ranfurly Shield defence. Waikato lie fifth on the standings, while Auckland are third.
"Waikato play a good style of footy. Both of us need to keep getting points so it is a massive game.
"We haven't executed perfectly yet but we've got the points. We need to make sure we get the reward of working hard tomorrow by getting the points again," said White.
With the return of Ofa Tu'ungafasi, there will be three sets of brothers in the Auckland side tomorrow with Ofa and Isi Tu'ungafasi, Akira and Rieko Ioane and Jono and Simon Hickey.
Lock Michael Fatialofa will run out for his 50th provincial match, 36 of which were for Southland.
Auckland, with George Moala to the fore, have topped 50 in their last two outings against Waikato. Don't bet on a similar blowout tomorrow.
Auckland: Tyrone Elkington-MacDonald, Joe Ravouvou, Rieko Ioane, Vince Aso, Pryor Collier, Simon Hickey (c), Leon Fukofuka, Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Liaki Moli, Patrick Tuipulotu, Michael Fatialofa, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Isi Tu'ungafasi;
Reserves: Kurt Eklund, Tom McHugh, Marcel Renata, Scott Scrafton, Joe Edwards, Jono Hickey, Latiume Fosita, Pasqualle Dunn
Waikato: Jordan Trainor, Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara, Willis Halaholo, Sam Christie, Sevu Reece, Damian McKenzie, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Whetu Douglas (c), Mitch Jacobson, Jordan Manihera, Brian Alainu'uese, Jacob Skeen, Atu Moli, Hame Faiva, Loni Uhila;
Reserves: Steven Misa, Sefo Kautai, Latu Talakai, Adam Burn, Murray Iti, Harrison Levien, Tevita Taufui, Tyler Campbell