Mitre 10 Cup Premiership
Counties Manukau v Canterbury
ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe
Counties Manukau have rolled out the big guns for tomorrow's shot at Canterbury in Pukekohe.
All Blacks hooker Hika Elliot, RWC medal-winning prop Pauliasi Manu and Chiefs wing Toni Pulu all slot into the starting line-up, the front-rowers for their first starts of an injury-ravaged 2016. Halfback Augustine Pulu, the fulcrum around which much of their attack is based, makes a timely return from a one-match suspension.
After Auckland's narrow defeat to Taranaki last night, the Steelers need just one competition point to clinch a Premiership semifinal berth for the first time since 2013. But the reality is they would love a victory to enable them to possibly, pending Sunday's Tasman-Southland game, finish as high as third and thus avoid an unappetising trip to Christchurch next weekend.
There is the further motivating factor that they have not lowered Canterbury since, astoundingly, 1998, though they pushed them hard in the 2015 regular season before losing 20-15.
Canterbury, the No 1 qualifier and defending champs, have made several changes to their line-up, including resting injured form playmaker Richie Mo'unga. Jordie Barrett moves back to fullback and Fijian international Ben Volavola starts at first five.
But Steelers coach Darryl Suasua is not fooled.
"Talking to our guys who have spent a lot of time down there (read Crusaders Jordan Taufua, Jimmy Tupou and Sione Fifita), it's just not in the Canterbury psyche to take the game lightly. They want to win everything and have been the form team of the competition. The energy of their tight five is key," says Suasua.
The Steelers were clearly the better team in the 16-14 crucial win over Otago last weekend, with the likes of So'otala Fa'aso'o and Richard Judd to the fore, but they required a last minute Joe Reynolds penalty goal to seal it. Though the kick was directly in front, it was a chance for Reynolds to exorcise the demons of his late, costly, miss against Taranaki. However, he broke his hand at training during the week, and joins prop Sione Faletau (calf) on the sidelines. Other players, such as Fa'aso'o and prop Kalolo Tuiloma are bracketed, while there was a lighter training week for some who have had a heavy workload this season, namely Piers Francis and Taufua.
"We haven't been pleased with our last two games. We made 12 line breaks against Otago, but just weren't finishing off. A lot of our games have down to last plays," says Suasua.
Accordingly, the Steelers have trained for such scenarios, looking to drive lineouts, work to the middle and perhaps force a penalty. Incredibly, their four losing margins total just 10 points. They have played well enough to be semifinalists and should be good enough to secure at least the one point required to confirm that tomorrow.
*Live commentary of this match is on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 2.35pm on Saturday.
Counties Manukau: Luteru Laulala, Sione Fifita, Sam Vaka, Cardiff Vaega, Toni Pulu, Piers Francis, Augustine Pulu (c), So'otala Fa'aso'o/Onosa'i Auva'a, Jordan Taufua, Jimmy Tupou (c), Matiaha Martin, Viliame Rarasea, Kalolo Tuiloma/Sean Paranihi, Hika Elliot, Pauliasi Manu; Reserves: Gafatasi Sua, Sean Bagshaw, Kalolo Tuiloma/Sean Paranihi, Matt Vaai, Onosa'i Auva'a/Viliami Taulani, Richard Judd, Joe Ikenasio, Sione Molia
Canterbury: Jordie Barrett, Johnny McNicholl, Jack Goodhue, Inga Finau, George Bridge, Ben Volavola, Ere Enari, Luke Whitelock (c), Jed Brown, Tom Sanders, Dave McDuling, Scott Barrett, Siate Tokolahi, Ben Funnell, Alex Hodgman; Reserves: Tom Crozier, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Lee Roy Atalifo, Reed Prinsep, Dylan Nel, Jack Stratton, Nathan Earle, Poasa Waqanibau