Auckland v Otago
Eden Park, Auckland
Auckland are still far from perfect but their 44-38 win over the Steamers was a step in the right direction as they contemplate the Championship leaders back on Eden Park tomorrow night.
The prospect of losing three matches in a row at their 'fortress' is unthinkable, and they do have some pack reinforcements in the shape of loosehead prop Sam Prattley and No 8 Steven Luatua, both back from shoulder and ankle injuries respectively.
"It's good to have Dolph (Luatua) back, not just with his leadership and presence, but also the fact he was playing really well before he got injured. We just need as many troops back on deck as we can get," says Auckland coach Nick White.
Despite another dusty start last Sunday against Bay of Plenty, he felt the overall display, led by a Rieko Ioane hat-trick, was "better."
"We held onto the ball and when we did offload it stuck. It's not perfect but we have to continue to build," adds White.
Pryor Collier returns to the wing, while lock Michael Fatialofa is out with a niggle.
Otago are coming off their first defeat of the season, a 45-34 reverse to a classy Canterbury, and are set to hand a debut, off the bench, to 2014 NZ Schools prop Jonah Aoina, while hooker Seko Pole, a 2013 NZ Barbarians Schools rep, will make his first start of 2016 in place of the injured Sam Anderson-Heather. Loose forward Naulia Dawai, who crossed for a hat-trick in the corresponding clash in 2015, a narrow 35-29 win for Auckland at Eden Park, will come off the bench, and he knows his way to the line, having scored four tries in 2016.
"Otago play good footy. If we drop the ball, their turnover attack is good. They are coming off a loss, so they'll be keen to fix up their performance," says White.
History is against Otago, who have won just once (in 2011) at Eden Park since the dawn of the NPC in 1976.
"In the past, even if we haven't played that well, we've won on Eden Park."
Auckland would probably need two wins from their last three regular season games to reach the semifinals, but they would ideally need to finish in second or third position to avoid a trip to Christchurch in the Premiership playoffs. As it stands, they have slipped to fifth after Tasman's victory over Counties Manukau last night.
*Live commentary of this match is on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 7.35pm on Saturday.
Auckland: Melani Nanai, Lolagi Visinia, Rieko Ioane, Vince Aso, Pryor Collier, Simon Hickey (c), Jono Hickey, Steven Luatua, Akira Ioane, Taleni Seu, Liaki Moli, Scott Scrafton, Marcel Renata, Kurt Eklund, Sam Prattley; Reserves: Blake Hill, Tom McHugh, Isi Tu'ungafasi, Ben Nee Nee, Josh Kaifa, Leon Fukofuka, Liam Steel, Latiume Fosita
Otago: Michael Collins, Mitchell Scott, Matt Faddes, Teihorangi Walden, Fa'asiu Fuatai, Fletcher Smith, Jonathan Ruru, Paul Grant (c), James Lentjes, Lee Allan, Tom Franklin, Josh Dickson, Donald Brighouse, Seko Pole, Craig Millar; Reserves: Nick Grogan, Jonah Aoina, Michael Mata'afa, Blair Tweed, Naulia Dawai, Josh Walden, Scott Eade, Sio Tomkinson