Otago v North Harbour
Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
You would never guess, watching the North Harbour boys at training yesterday, that they were about to play the union's biggest game in years.
They were so relaxed and laidback, but it is indicative of the tight-knit nature of this group, a small but settled squad. They don't worry much about outside perceptions, and they will laugh off the fact they are $3 at the TAB compared to Otago's much tighter head to head odds.
They certainly had a laugh when some poor (metaphorically, one would hope) sod sprayed $94,000 on Wellington to win the semifinal, just before Glenn Preston crossed the tryline with halftime looming in last weekend's semifinal.
Coach Steve Jackson felt the game was in hand, even though the final scoreline read 40-37.
"I think we were in control of the game the whole way through. They were chasing the game because we started so well," says Jackson, who prepares his last North Harbour side before joining the Blues.
"We've got nothing to lose. Obviously the winner gets promoted to the Premiership. We were No 3 qualifiers. We beat Counties Manukau, who were in the Premiership semis, and drew with Tasman, who are in the Premiership final."
New Zealand Rugby, who see the greater Auckland region as an area of strategic importance would, quietly, love to see North Harbour join Auckland and Counties Manukau in the Premiership for 2017.
"It'll be massive for the Harbour union (if we win). I know it's the Championship, but it creates a winning culture, players wanting to come to the union, it makes it easier for the commercial department, massive for the community and bums on seats too. These guys (the team) haven't thought much about that side of it," says Jackson.
When you consider how far Harbour have come when they have not had the services for large periods of the competition of All Blacks hooker and squad captain James Parsons, two quality contracted midfielders in Rene Ranger and Pita Ahki, and limited output from New Zealand Under 20s No 8 Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a, who has also battled injury, then it highlights how meritorious their season has been. Other than the last quarter of the 47-18 Canterbury Shield challenge, they have been right in the game for all four of their losses, and would have taken Tasman in the 27-all draw but for some tactical naivety and clumsy execution.
Harbour are virtually unchanged, with just hookers Ray Niuia and Vyron Smith bracketed on the bench.
Otago are also largely settled, though hooker Sam Anderson-Heather needs to pass a fitness test to take his place. Failing that, former All Black Andrew Hore, who kicked off his first-class career with Otago in 1998, could suit up, from the pine, for his 311th match, equalling Zinzan Brooke as 12th on the all-time New Zealand list and surpassing Fergie McCormick. The 38-year-old was spotted enjoying the convivial surrounds of the Barbarians clubrooms with old front-row cobbers Tony Woodcock and Greg Somerville during last Saturday's Bledisloe test.
Otago beat Harbour 24-13 in the regular season match last month under the roof, but Harbour's 14 handling errors to eight was the telling stat.
Otago last played a Championship final in 2012, falling 41-16 to counties Manukau in Pukekohe. Harbour, conversely, have never played a semifinal since the NPC was split into Premiership and Championship in 2012.
*Live commentary of this match is on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 7.35pm on Friday.
Otago: Michael Collins, Mitchell Scott, Matt Faddes, Teihorangi Walden, Fa'asiu Fuatai, Fletcher Smith, Jonathan Ruru, Paul Grant (c), James Lentjes, Naulia Dawai, Tom Franklin, Blair Tweed, Donald Brighouse, Sam Anderson-Heather, Craig Millar;
Reserves: Seko Pole, Aki Seiuli, Josh Hohneck, Josh Dickson, Adam Knight, Josh Walden, Scott Eade, Sio Tomkinson
North Harbour: Matt McGahan, Matt Duffie, Matt Vaega, Michael Little, Tevita Li, Bryn Gatland, Bryn Hall, Murphy Taramai, Connor Collett, Glenn Preston, Chris Vui (c), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Sione Mafileo, Adrian Smith, Nic Mayhew;
Reserves: Ray Niuia/Vyron Smith, Jody Allen, Jethro Felemi, Brandon Nansen, Kane Jacobson, Chris Smylie, Daniel Hilton-Jones, Afa Fa'ata