Auckland v Tasman
Eden Park, Auckland
Auckland may just have turned the corner in 2016, and finding their game is reflected in a starting line-up which shows just one change from the team that demolished Otago last Saturday night.
Loose forward Taleni Seu hurt his shoulder in the victory, and will be out for around a fortnight. He will be replaced by Michael Fatialofa, meaning Liaki Moli shifts out to blindside flanker.
Auckland now sit second on the Premiership log with 27 points, with the Tasman Makos in fifth on 22, but with a game in hand and showing four wins in their last five outings, including a 15-10 win over to Counties Manukau last week that was more decisive than the scoreline would indicate.
And while Seu joins the likes of fellow forwards Greg Pleasants-Tate and Blake Gibson on the sidelines, there were signs that the Auckland pack was warming to their work in the 54-17 defeat of Otago, easily their best display of an inconsistent season.
"It was a good performance and the boys have now got the opportunity to back it up. We think we've found our game," says Auckland assistant coach Geoff Moon, who works mainly with the pack.
"We built pressure. To start well was all about getting the ball and holding onto the ball, not giving away stupid penalties and playing with some width to our game breakers.
"But no one is getting carried away. The challenge is to back it up five days later."
The Makos know they have never beaten Auckland on Eden Park since their inception in 2006, the best a 16-all draw two years ago. Their pack, which got the better of the Steelers, is bolstered by the return of flanker Shane Christie and with All Blacks prop Kane Hames, who scrummaged Ofa Tu'ungafasi into the ground during the 2015 semifinal, returning via the bench.
"They'll have a real crack up front and look to play with width. They're an exciting, well-coached team and it's a massive game for them," adds Moon.
Sam Prattley stiffened Auckland's scrum against Otago after several weeks out with injury.
"From my point of view, when you set-piece better, you defend better," says Moon.
No 8 Steven Luatua brought some hard-nosed professionalism on his return, and he will be keen to erase memories of his skewed kick from the 2014 game which gifted the Makos a try.
Prop Tom McHugh, who has made good strides in 2016, will reach his blazer game for the union when he enters the fray off the bench.
"The forward pack is maturing. It's got a balance of professionals and young guys. The young guys are learning from the pros and that's the key. Having Dolph (Luatua) and Pratts back has been good," Moon says.
*Live commentary of this match is on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 7.35pm on Thursday.
Auckland: Melani Nanai, Lolagi Visinia, Rieko Ioane, Vince Aso, Pryor Collier, Simon Hickey (c), Jono Hickey, Steven Luatua, Akira Ioane, Liaki Moli, Michael Fatialofa, Scott Scrafton, Marcel Renata, Kurt Eklund, Sam Prattley; Reserves: Blake Hill, Tom McHugh, James Lay, Ben Nee Nee, Josh Kaifa, Leon Fukofuka, Liam Steel, Latiume Fosita
Tasman: Mitchell Hunt, Tima Faingaanuku, Alex Nankivell, David Havili, Caleb Makene, Marty Banks, Billy Guyton, Pete Samu, Shane Christie (c), Tevita Koloamatangi, Alex Ainley, Quinten Strange, Ross Geldenhuys, Andrew Makalio, Tim Perry; Reserves: Jesse MacDonald, Kane Hames, Siua Halanukonuka, Ethan Blackadder, Shannon Frizell, Finlay Christie, Trael Joass, Viliami Lolohea