By PETER JESSUP
The finals series of the national rugby league competition now offers local players the opportunity to front up to an opposition they see only on television, with a Residents side now confirmed to meet Australia in a World Cup buildup.
Some of coach Gerard Stokes' Residents XIII squad who went to Australia last month have since been named in World Cup squads for the Maori and Pacific Island nations.
This means Stokes must widen his selection scope and Bartercard Cup finalists come into full frame.
Otahuhu and Stokes' Canterbury side, who meet in the major final at Carlaw Park tomorrow, and Wainuiomata and the Eastern Tornadoes, who play off in the elimination final, all named sides largely unchanged from their last games.
All declared that their squads were fully fit for the weekend doubleheader.
The New Zealand Rugby League has completed arrangements for the Residents to play Australia at Gosford, the Northern Eagles home just north of Sydney, on October 14.
The Junior Kiwis will play the Junior Roos in the curtainraiser.
There is still discussion on whether those on World Cup standby for either the Kiwis or Aotearoa Maori will be eligible for the game, but it opens doors for the best local players and Stokes is rapt with the chance of exposure at top level.
"You can lift guys for a one-off like that and you just can't beat the experience of playing with that sort of quality."
Stokes will not select his squad until after the Bartercard Cup is resolved in a fortnight and until World Cup squads have settled. This is because some players are named in as many as three World Cup teams.
Tomorrow, Stokes' Bulls will have a hard ask in breaking the big Otahuhu forward pack, who laid the platform for a 50-point thrashing when Canterbury last met them in Auckland.
"We've challenged ourselves to put the home-ground advantage out of our minds," he said.
"We've won enough games away this year, but we've struggled against the top five and we know this is going to require another 20 per cent lift."
Dean Clark's Otahuhu Leopards have cleared up many niggling injuries after earning last weekend off as minor premiers.
They got thrashed at training on Saturday to ensure they do not sit on their laurels.
They topped that off with a clean and efficient session on Tuesday night.
Clark knows they have got the edge in size and is expecting the Bulls to go wide, hard and fast for the entire 80 minutes.
"They'll have a good game plan. We need to concentrate on our own thing and stop the mistakes," he said.
"I always harp on about good, consistent football so we'll concentrate on solid defence. That's what won Brisbane the grand final."
Their experienced players - the cup's second-highest tryscorer in centre Solomon Kiri, captain and hooker Esau Mann and five-eighth Hare Te Rangi - were all at the top of their game and that would be a big help, said Clark.
James Leuleuai has told the Eastern Tornadoes to avoid the silly penalties that cost them in the closing stages against Canterbury last weekend.
The lead changed hands four times, with Canterbury having too much possession in the last quarter and scoring two late tries to win.
"We were disappointed we gave it to them," Leuleuai said.
He is wary of the forward strength, the power in the backs, the experience and the championship-winning history of Wainuiomata.
But Leuleuai has the exciting prospect of youth in his side to combat Wainuiomata's strengths.
The Tornadoes have uncovered some talented players this season as feeder clubs have moved more to support them once those players secured higher honours with the Residents and World Cup squads.
This followed early-season complaints that the Eastern amalgamation had robbed Fox Memorial sides of any chance in the lower grade.
The NZRL is yet to finalise the venue for the final.
Canterbury have asked to host the game if they go through automatically this weekend.
However, the league is leaning towards Ericsson Stadium in Auckland.
Canterbury Bulls: Gareth Cook, Scott Woodgate, Gafa Tuiloma, Raymond Hubbard, Tangiia Tongia, Scott Nixon, Maurice Emslie (c), Robert Henare, Shane Beyers, Kevin Te Hau, Shaun Norton, Graeme Emslie, Jonny Limmer; interchange Clayton Harris, Malala Puaavase, Enoka Mamoe, Kayne Jager.
Otahuhu Leopards: Corey Palmer, George Carmont, Solomon Kiri, Scott Niwa, Mark Elder, Shane Edwards, Hare Te Rangi, George Tuakura, Esau Mann (c), Haemish Reid, Herman Lemafa, Tyson Marjoribanks, Chris Peau; interchange Lance Kouka, Chris Magele, Eric Pele, Tusa Lafaele.
Eastern Tornadoes: Taki Pulini, Casino Doyle, Paul Fisiiahi, David Fisiiahi, Joe Flavell, Remus Gentles, Mark Murray, Brian Tuia, Jason Tatana, Andrew Fausa, Sinave Faitala (c), Fred Tupou, Phillip Leuluai; interchange Poha Pulini, Joe Tau, Duke Warren, Winston Sua.
Wainuiomata Lions: Yogi Rogers, Nio Luamanu, Michael Price, Delaney Edmonds, Danny Reuelu, Steve Berryman (c), David Faiumu, Billy Weepu, Jason Bell, Chris Savali, Heston Patea, Mike Luke, Ian Drummond; interchange David Tuia, Leamy Tato, Dan Cowden, Jacob Crown.
By PETER JESSUP