They have si' />

A backdrop of players' discord and financial pain has failed to derail North Harbour as they pursue their dream of a first NPC final.

They have sidestepped those snags this season to reach tonight's next obstacle - a semifinal meeting with franchise partners Auckland.

The winner at Eden Park tonight will get a home final against Otago next Saturday after the southerners beat defending champions Canterbury 37-22 in Christchurch last night.

Harbour are on a four-match streak which mocks the economic difficulties the province is labouring under and the dissent some players voiced mid-season about coach Allan Pollock's style.

Those concerns were noted, Pollock has modified his approach and the players have shown enough professional edge to see past the dramas and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

"It has made it all challenging but it is a credit to the spirit of the team," union chief executive Noel Coom said of the financial troubles.

Coom said Harbour still owed the NZRFU $450,000 as part of their deal to finance North Harbour Stadium and that had eaten into the province's reserves and ability to run a professional team. There was also the fallout after investigations into the dealings of former chief executive Doug Rollerson and Brent Todd.

Harbour had to take legal advice, said Coom, about whether they could sign players if they were an insolvent organisation.

"Harbour have got some financial challenges," NZRFU deputy Steve Tew said circumspectly.

He added that the NZRFU had deferred one loan payment so Harbour could get some breathing space but denied the NZRFU wanted to appoint a financial manager.

As those debates ticked over, the players complained about what they felt was some oppressive man-management from Pollock. The Harbour board heard the noises too and while there have been concessions, some unease still exists.

But the players have combined to edge out core Super 14 franchise sides Waikato and Wellington for a place in the final four.

And Harbour have plenty more to play for. They lost their pool game against Auckland 27-10 and if they could reverse that result tonight, they would apply more pressure to Blues convenor David Nucifora's choices for next year.

Opposing five-eighths Luke McAlister and Tasesa Lavea should both waltz into that squad but the direction they can impart on the semifinal will go a long way towards finding a result.

Harbour's pack has been so consistent it is not a surprise anymore. Tighthead Mike Noble is challenging for a propping role in the Blues while lock Marty Veale and blindside flanker Anthony Boric are demanding closer comparisons with their Auckland rivals.

The forward rumble should be a decent contest and Harbour look likely with McAlister, Rua Tipoki and Anthony Tuitavake in midfield.

But out wide they get a bit leaner on defence and experience and that is where Auckland will attack. Any of the Auckland backline from second five-eighths Isa Nacewa out to the wings can create mischief on the flanks.

Auckland experienced the intensity of a final last week against Canterbury. They lost some of their composure under that tension, making handling errors and lacking some variety in the all-consuming attacking plan they will use again tonight.

But they have digested where they went wrong while Harbour last week were involved in a bit of a mixed run-in with Southland.

Auckland and Harbour both lost two games in the pool play. Auckland have scored more points while Harbour have conceded a deal less.

If the sparring stays level this semifinal could hinge on the goalkicking of McAlister and Brent Ward.

Then there are the breakdowns, where flankers Daniel Braid and Tom Harding will feel much more comfortable without the presence of Richie McCaw.

Referee Bryce Lawrence's rulings will be just another part of the puzzle.

* Eden Park, tonight, 7.35


Brent Ward
Doug Howlett
Mils Muliaina
Isa Nacewa
Tony Koonwaiyou
Tasesa Lavea
Steve Devine
Jerome Kaino
Daniel Braid
Justin Collins (c)
Ali Williams
Angus Macdonald
John Afoa
Keven Mealamu
S. Taumoepeau

North Harbour

George Pisi
V. Waqaseduadua
A. Tuitavake
Rua Tipoki (c)
Zar Lawrence
Luke McAlister
J. Poluleuligaga
Nick Williams
Tom Harding
Anthony Boric
Greg Rawlinson
Marty Veale
Mike Noble
Joe Ward
Tony Woodcock


Auckland: Fonokolafi, White, Haiu, Mika, Moa, Atiga, Tuitupou/Rokocoko.

North Harbour: Dustow, Donald, Wilson, Tamihere, McGrath, Nasmith, Mailei.