What a difference a season makes.

When Northland and Waikato faced off at Toll Stadium last season both sides were in the midst of disappointing seasons.

Northland hadn't won since 2014 while Waikato were languishing outside the Premiership finals.

The 48-27 victory for the Taniwha broke a 19-game losing streak and the win finished Waikato's chances of a playoff berth.


But now both sides are in strong form and looking good in the early stages of the 2017 season.

Northland and Waikato have two wins a piece, leaving them in the top four of the Championship and Premiership respectively.

Taniwha coach Derren Witcombe said they needed to be wary of the threats posed by Waikato while continuing to develop their own game.

"They've got a pretty handy set-piece and get good ball from there. They've got some really exciting backs that can cut teams open if you allow them to," he said.

"We really want to push them at the set-piece and take it from there. Again though, this year we have a big focus on us and how we want to play and our systems.

"We have a defence system that we feel is going okay, it still needs to get better. Rather than focus on the opposition it's about focusing on us and our game."

Waikato have already shown a predilection for scoring points. Just look at Jordan Manihera. The No8 has already scored six tries and leads the competition.

Add to that the potency of their backline which includes Pita Ahki on Waikato debut, Sevu Reece and former All Black Zac Guildford and Northland's defensive systems will again be put to the test.

But Northland have an exciting backline of their own as well as a skilled, hard-working pack.

Rene Ranger, who has stood out in his return season with the Taniwha, said they had to be wary of Waikato's size but preparation had been their key so far.

"They'll use their physicality against us. They've got a big unit up front so we need to, not so much match them, but definitely outwork them," he said.

"We're pretty happy with the effort so far. We've prepared well for our games. The preparation and training is a big part of what we do and that is showing on the field from everyone.

"There is still competition for spots because everyone's going well and working hard."

Ranger returned to Northland this season after a two-year stint at North Harbour after returning from France.

At season's end, he will head off once again to France after signing a deal with La Rochelle. He said there was no doubt he wanted to return north before he left.

"I've always wanted to play for Northland," he said.

"I had two years there with Harbour but didn't get the spin with them. I feel pretty bad.

"I was always looking for a return home and with the boys Northland have, like the Pryor brothers and Jack coming back up, it made it a real no-brainer to come home before I head off."

The game kicks off at 4:35pm at Toll Stadium.

Northland: Solomon Alaimalo, Jordan Hyland, Rene Ranger, Jack Goodhue, Jone Macilai, Dan Hawkins, Sam Nock, Matt Matich, Dan Pryor, Jack Ram, Murray Douglas, Tim Bond, Ropate Rinakama, Matt Moulds (c), Ross Wright.
Reserves: Jordan Olsen, Howard Sililoto, Phil Kite, Josh Larsen, Jaycob Matiu, Matty Markwick, Tim Blundell, Blake Hohaia.

Waikato: Zac Guildford, Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara, Sevu Reece, Pita Ahki, Tyler Campbell, Sam Christie, Pele Cowley, Jordan Manihera, Mitch Jacobson, Luke Jacobson, James Tucker, Jacob Skeen (c), Sefo Kautai, Hame Faiva, Loni Uhila.
Reserves: Samison Taukei-aho, Ayden Johnstone, Duke Nginingini, Leva Fifita, Adam Burn, Harrison Levien, Matty Lansdown, Bailyn Sullivan.

Head to Head:
Played: 74 (1926-2016)
Northland wins: 25
Waikato wins: 47
Draws: 2
Last match: Northland 48-27 - October 2, 2016 in Whangarei (Mitre 10 Cup)
Last Waikato win: Waikato 31-22 - August 17, 2013 in Hamilton (ITM Cup)
Biggest Northland score: 48-27 - October 2, 2016 in Whangarei (Mitre 10 Cup)
Biggest Waikato score: 73-33 - October 5, 2002 in Hamilton (NPC)
Biggest differential: Waikato by 43 (49-6) - April 5, 1992 in Hamilton (NPC)