Two wins from their opening four games means the Bay of Plenty Steamers are well-placed on the ITM Championship table ahead of tomorrow's cross-over clash with ITM Premiership side Counties Manukau Steelers in Pukekohe.
Unbeaten Hawke's Bay and Wellington have cleared away in the championship to take hold of the two home semifinal berths at this stage, with the Steamers in third place just ahead of Southland and Otago. The two southern teams are clearly the biggest threat to the Steamers' chances of making the semifinals.
The Steamers' two losses have been to premiership sides Tasman and Waikato balanced against two comfortable wins against championship rivals Southland and North Harbour. Losses are inevitable in a compressed competition like the ITM Cup but for a promotion-hungry team like the Steamers, the key is not to lose to teams in the same division.
Following last Sunday's 43-10 loss to Waikato, the Steamers have had a full seven days to get over some injuries and take stock of what needs urgent improvement.
The one-on-one tackling that was so woeful against Waikato is the greatest work-on ahead of Counties Manukau, whose big, athletic ball-running forwards will rip any team to pieces if allowed to.
But the Steelers are backing up from a tough loss to Taranaki on Wednesday night so may not be at their sharpest on Sunday.
What was apparent in the Taranaki match is how Counties Manukau commit so few forwards to the tackled ball situation, fanning out across the field on - or often over - the offside line.
This makes them extremely difficult to break through, so the Steamers need to play a far more direct game up front, delivering good front foot ball quickly to their dangerous outside backs.
Steamers' coach Clayton McMillan has made several changes for tomorrow's encounter.
Chase Tiatia has been shifted from left wing to fullback, with Whaimotu Craft-Chemis starting on the right wing and Elijah Nicolas rewarded for his form in the development team with the left wing berth.
Halfback Te Aihe Toma and first-five Dan Hollinshead will start together, Caleb Hall returns to second-five with Tino Nemani shifting to centre, and Shahn Eru starts his first game at lock.