Mitre 10 Cup Premiership
Counties Manukau v Waikato
ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe
Pauliasi Manu has made an early return from a long-term Achilles injury to bolster the Counties Manukau squad ahead of tomorrow night's Premiership and Chiefs derby with Waikato in Pukekohe.
The 28-year-old loosehead prop, who has a RWC winner's medal, but is not yet an All Black, may be in a position to make a late run for the end of year tour. He comes onto the Steelers' bench and is said to be almost jumping out of his skin after it was first thought that his injury from earlier in the season with the Blues was to be season-ending.
Lock Matiaha Martin returns to the starting XV, while captain Jimmy Tupou shifts to blindside flanker, giving more depth to the lineout. Hooker Hika Elliot is back on the bench after missing two games with a hamstring issue that emanated from his neck and back.
The Steelers will again look to the inspirational form and leadership of Jordan Taufua and Augustine Pulu, who were to the fore in last Sunday's 30-26 win over Auckland, their first at Eden Park since 1977.
But the back-patting is apparently well and truly over.
"We had a pretty honest review with our forwards. There are still a few work-ons there. If they weren't back down to earth, they certainly are now," says Steelers assistant coach Grant Henson.
It will niggle the Steelers that they are yet to show their best work at their Pukekohe base. Their two best displays of 2016 (against Hawke's Bay and Auckland) came away from home, thought they did play strongly for 50 minutes in the victory over Bay of Plenty.
"All teams like to think of their home ground as a fortress, and that hasn't been the case for us so far. Two one-point losses doesn't help the confidence, so we definitely want to put one out there this Friday," says Henson.
There is respect for Waikato, who lie one place lower on the Premiership standings, though with a game in hand. They almost lost the Ranfurly Shield last Sunday to Taranaki in the 20-all draw. The Steelers are, however, high on motivation against 'big brother'.
"Our belief is that they rate themselves a bit higher than us. We need to give our fans a bit back. Waikato have been up and down, but they've got a better record than us. They are a pretty well-coached team that have clarity around what they do," Henson adds.
Waikato's depth continues to be tested with more injuries and international commitments forcing a few changes to their starting line-up.
Prop Josh Iosefa-Scott earns his first start for Waikato after a strong performance off the bench against Taranaki, in place of Sefo Kautai, who is out with concussion. Young Hautapu front-rower Ayden Johnstone comes onto the bench for a potential Waikato debut.
Other changes to the forward pack include starts for Brad Tucker, Adam Burn and Mitch Jacobson. Tucker comes in for Jacob Skeen who is out with a minor shoulder injury, Burn replaces Jordan Manihera and Jacobson is in for Murray Iti who is on the reserve bench.
Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Damian McKenzie are with the All Blacks again which means a start at halfback for Harrison Levien and another chance in the No 10 jersey for Sam Christie.
The rest of the backline remains unchanged with Tyler Campbell retaining his spot at fullback after a promising first start last weekend.
Former Canterbury wing Milford Keresoma is in line to debut for the province off the bench.
On the bench uncapped lock/loose forward Leva Fifita has been named after a tough run of injuries earlier in the season, and Pele Cowley is named as back-up halfback with Isaac Boss still struggling with his hamstring injury.
In the 2015 fixture, Counties Manukau convincingly defeated Waikato 30-9 in Hamilton, so the Mooloos are not likely to be in anything other than game mode tomorrow night.
*Live commentary of this match is on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 7.35pm on Friday.
Counties Manukau: Luteru Laulala, Sione Fifita, Sam Vaka, Cardiff Vaega, Sherwin Stowers, Piers Francis, August Pulu (c), So'otala Fa'aso'o, Jordan Taufua, Jimmy Tupou (c), Matiaha Martin, Viliame Rarasea, Kalolo Tuiloma, Gafatasi Sua, Sean Bagshaw; Reserves: Hika Elliot, Pauliasi Manu, Sione Faletau, Matt Vaai, Onosa'i Auva'a, Richard Judd, Nathan de Thierry, Joe Ikenasio
Waikato: Tyler Campbell, Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara, Willis Halaholo, Tevita Taufui, Sevu Reece, Sam Christie, Harrison Levien, Whetu Douglas (c), Mitch Jacobson, Adam Burn, Brian Alainu'uese, Brad Tucker, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Hame Faiva, Latu Talakai
Reserves: Steven Misa, Tau Koloamatangi, Ayden Johnstone, Leva Fifita, Murray Iti, Pele Cowley, Jason Robertson, Milford Keresoma