North Harbour v Tasman
QBE Stadium, Albany
North Harbour will have their arch-rivals Auckland cheering for them in tonight's key Mitre 10 crossover clash in Albany.
There is generally little love lost between the neighbouring Blues unions, but Auckland would love to see Harbour maintain their unbeaten home record to keep the Makos pegged down on the Premiership ladder in the tight race for the semifinals.
Harbour might enjoy the support, but they too have eyes solely on victory. A win, even without the bonus point, would see them qualify for playoffs footy for the first time since 2006.
This follows the 47-18 Ranfurly Shield defeat to Canterbury last Friday. Harbour were right in it until the final quarter, when their fine defensive record took a beating. But they have still conceded less points than any other Championship outfit.
"Canterbury are really clinical and don't make many mistakes. We thought we were in for a chance at halftime and our pack dominated them in that first 40, but they are a class outfit," says Harbour coach Steve Jackson.
There is again a settled look to the Harbour squad, though prop Nic Mayhew is not quite ready for a return, while Brandon Nansen and James Parsons are still out. Adrian Smith reverts to hooker to replace Vyron Smith, who had bone bruising from the Christchurch game.
The Makos pack, so dominant against Auckland last Thursday, will need to be contained if Harbour are to take their second Premiership scalp of 2016. The other plan might revolve around shutting down No 10 Marty Banks.
"Tasman play a similar style to Canterbury, so we'll have to make our tackles. They run with purpose. Once they get over the gain line, their next 2-3 runners really hit the line with speed. We've got to react to that and get set quick," says Jackson. "Marty Banks is like the puppet master. He directs everyone and is a quality player. We'll have to put some heat on him. David Havili kicked a 60m penalty goal (at Eden Park), so our discipline will have to be good."
A defeat to Harbour would not spell their death knell for 2016 as they play the final game of the regular season on Sunday away to Northland. But they know that 19 points, their current tally, might not be enough and they may have to cheer on Hawke's Bay to beat Bay of Plenty, the only side that can head them for the playoffs, on Saturday.
Harbour's lack of bonus points, just three, contrasts with the eight of the Steamers, who have won two games less.
The Makos have suffered two significant blows in the pack, with loosies Pete Samu and Shane Christie ruled out, meaning Ethan Blackadder, son of Todd, comes into the No 6 jersey. They have considerable firepower on the bench, in the form of props Kane Hames and Siua Halanukonuka, former King's College First XV loose forward Teariki Ben-Nicholas and backs Kieron Fonotia and Caleb Makene.
*Live commentary of this match is on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 7.35pm tonight.
North Harbour: Matt McGahan, Matt Duffie, Matt Vaega, Michael Little, Tevita Li, Bryn Gatland, Chris Smylie, Murphy Taramai, Connor Collett, Glenn Preston, Chris Vui (c), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Sione Mafileo, Adrian Smith, Karl Tu'inukuafe; Reserves: Kalem Chan-Boon, Hani Fatai, Jethro Felemi, Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a, Kane Jacobson, Bryn Hall, Daniel Hilton-Jones, Afa Fa'atau
Tasman: Mitchell Hunt, Viliami Lolohea, Alex Nankivell, David Havili, James Lowe, Marty Banks, Finlay Christie, Shannon Frizell, Tevita Koloamatangi, Ethan Blackadder, Alex Ainley (c), Quinten Strange, Ross Geldenhuys, Andrew Makalio, Tim Perry; Reserves: Jesse MacDonald, Kane Hames, Siua Halanukonuka, Ethan Blackadder, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Billy Guyton, Kieron Fonotia, Caleb Makene