The Hawke's Bay Magpies have been slammed by injuries ahead of their bid to turn around their form away from home against Wellington tomorrow.
Regular starters Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Devan Flanders and Danny Toala are all unavailable in addition to Joe Apikotoa, who was a late withdrawal before the win over Bay of Plenty.
While the golden point thriller was Hawke's Bay's seventh straight defence of the Ranfurly Shield, the Magpies have not won on the road since they took the Log o' Wood from Otago in round four of 2020.
Head coach Mark Ozich said his team's struggles on their travels, in general, are a concern.
"Our guys have trained pretty well this week, and all indications are they'll be up for the challenge physically but we'll see how it transpires," he said.
The absences of Mikaele-Tu'u and Flanders have forced the Magpies to seek a new balance in their loose forward trio, with Brendon O'Connor coming into the starting lineup alongside Josh Kaifa and Gareth Evans.
Outstanding openside flanker Solomone Funaki will come off the bench in what is a redeployment rather than a demotion.
"Mone will give us a bit of punch off the bench, a bit of physicality so his role slightly changes this week," Ozich said.
Caleb Makene will have the chance to make a similar impact as a substitute in what will be his first game of the season.
The only change to the backline sees Ollie Sapsford move into second five with Kienan Higgins, formerly of Wellington's academy, taking his place on the bench.
Lock Elijah Martin is the other newcomer to the 23 with Isaia Walker-Leawere and Bryn Evans still sidelined by long-term injuries.
Ozich said that in a 10-game season every match is vital and tomorrow is no different.
Overcoming the injuries and their poor away form to beat the Lions at Sky Stadium would be a significant scalp that announces Hawke's Bay as NPC Premiership title contenders.
It will be a big ask though, reflected by the TAB putting Wellington's odds of a win at $1.46 compared to the Magpies' $2.55.
Tui in action
At 1pm today the Hawke's Bay Tui face the Taranaki Whio in Inglewood in their final regular season game of the Farah Palmer Cup.
The match will be a good chance for the Tui to test themselves ahead of their Championship semifinal against Northland Kauri next week.
Hawke's Bay Magpies team to play Wellington tomorrow, kickoff 2.05pm
1. Pouri Rakete-Stones, 2. Ash Dixon (captain), 3. Namatahi Waa, 4. Geoff Cridge, 5. Tom Parsons, 6. Josh Kaifa, 7. Brendon O'Connor, 8. Gareth Evans, 9. Ereatara Enari, 10. Lincoln McClutchie, 11. Jonah Lowe, 12. Ollie Sapsford, 13. Stacey Ili, 14. Neria Fomai, 15. Lolagi Visinia.
Reserves: 16. Jacob Devery, 17. Jason Long, 18. Joel Hintz, 19. Elijah Martin, 20. Solomone Funaki, 21. Tiaan Falcon, 22. Kienan Higgins, 23. Caleb Makene