By KELLY EXELBY
Long-serving Steamers hooker Aleki Lutui is primed to depart New Zealand rugby tomorrow with a bang.
Initially it was feared the 28-year-old Tongan international - who leaves next week to take up a two-year contract with the Worcester club in England - would be a spectator after a recurring calf injury limited his game time in the Air New Zealand Cup this season to just four minutes.
But Steamers head coach Andre Bell yesterday selected Lutui on the bench for the final Air NZ Cup Pool A clash with Taranaki at Blue Chip Stadium tomorrow night (kickoff 7.35pm).
"He's primed to go and I know Bay rugby fans, and Aleki, would like nothing more to see him bow out at home with a hiss and a roar," Bell said today. Lutui leaves his Bay of Plenty contract two months short of completion but Bell said the explosive runner would be given ample opportunity tomorrow to leave New Zealand rugby on a high note.
"I'll bring him on just after halftime, which could be quite a positive move for us seeing as we've struggled all season to put anything together in the second half.
"It's an area we've been looking at - injecting our impact players earlier - so Aleki coming on should give us some punch."
Lutui's departure will be a huge loss to the Steamers and the Chiefs, although Bay Rugby chief executive Paul Abbot said his stirling service to the Bay - which includes 55 games and 11 tries - was a big factor in not making him stay.
"To qualify for the Heineken Cup squad Aleki was required in the UK in September. We provided an early release in recognition of his service to the Bay and the development of greater depth in the hooking stocks within the Bay.
"This season we have used John Pareanga and Simon Chisholm successfully and, with the addition of Marcel Cummings-Toone to the squad, we believe the future is well protected."
Steamers lock Mark Sorenson will be given until the last possible moment to prove himself fit for tomorrow's game. The consistent performer has been nursing a hand injury and has been bracketed with Whakarewarewa strongman Aaron Rameka in the Steamers run-on side.
Bell has made just one other change to the starting side that beat Tasman last weekend, with New Zealand under-21 rep Lance MacDonald on the right wing.
While neither side can make the top three in Pool A, the winner would be guaranteed fourth spot and an easier ride in the repechage round.
"It's got a big impact on what happens in the next month. If we beat Taranaki we guarantee two home games [in the repechage] and would more than likely take Manawatu through into repechage round with Counties and Hawke's Bay.
"That's where we'd rather be."
Meanwhile, Scott Ireland returns to first-class rugby tomorrow, with the fullback earning a recall for Taranaki.
Ireland recalls last year's 18-17 loss against Bay of Plenty in Mt Maunganui well. "We led for most of the game. We were penalised a couple of minutes from fulltime and Bay of Plenty kicked the goal," he said. Ireland is one of several changes to the Taranaki team that beat Tasman 22-15.
With Ireland returning at fullback, Asalemo Malo replaces John Mow on the wing, Mow dropping back to the bench at the expense of Brendon Watt.
Brendan Haami gets a surprise recall at halfback ahead of Brett Goodin, who shone against Tasman.
Scott Waldrom and John Willis return on the flanks, with Jarrad Hoeata moving into lock alongside captain Paul Tito. Joe Lawn drops back to the bench, with Brendon McGlashan dropping out of the 22.
OF PLENY: Murray Williams, Lance MacDonald, Wayne Hughson, Cory Aporo, Anthony Tahana, Mike Delany, Jamie Nutbrown, Colin Bourke, Nili Latu, Warren Smith, Bernie Upton, Mark Sorenson/Aaron Rameka, Ben Castle (capt), John Pareanga, Simms Davison. Reserves: Aleki Lutui, James Afoa, Aaron Rameka/Aidan Kuka, Tanerau Latimer, Garrick Cowley, Tajhon Mialata/Hayden Reid, Charles Baxter.
TARANAKI: Scott Ireland, Asalemo Malo, Mathew Harvey, Paul Perez, Lifeimi Mafi, Miah Nikora, Brendan Haami, Tomasi Soqeta, Scott Waldrom, John Willis, Jarrad Hoeata, Paul Tito (capt), Census Johnson, Laurence Corlett, Tony Penn. Reserves: James Annabell, Hoani Tui, Leon Power, Joe Lawn, Brett Goodin, Jack Cameron, John Mow.
By KELLY EXELBY