All Black captain Anton Oliver will play his 50th game for Otago in their vital match against Wellington at the Cake Tin tonight.

But the milestone will take second place to an Otago victory, which would clinch a semifinal berth for them for the first time in three years.

Oliver has regained his confidence and form in recent weeks, despite a calf strain, and will need to be at the forefront of a convincing tight-five performance to negate the feisty Wellington pack.

Wellington, buoyed by their thrilling 35-31 win over North Harbour last week, have been strengthened by the return of Jonah Lomu, and his head-to-head with Jeff Wilson will be one of many intriguing confrontations.

Filo Tiatia and Jerry Collins withdrew from the Wellington side yesterday, with Rodney So'oialo moving to No 8 and Inoke Afeaki to blindside flanker.

But Wellington still boast a quick and skilled loose trio completed by former Otago flanker Kupu Vanisi, and Otago will have to earn forward parity.

They also have a lethal attacking backline, with speedster Lome Fa'atau the top try-scorer with eight.

The onus will be on the Otago backs to defend strongly and take their chances on attack. Hayden Reid and Ryan Nicholas face big tests against Christian Cullen and Tana Umaga.

Wellington have been a strong defensive side this season, conceding only 16 tries, and only one team, North Harbour, have scored four tries against them.

Otago have battled for NPC victories over Wellington. They have won nine, drawn one and lost 15. They last won in 1997.

But Otago coach Laurie Mains is not concerned about the past, nor that Otago are playing at the Wellington stadium for the first time.

He said defence and discipline would be key components against the unpredictable opposition..

The imponderable is the effect the Paul Steinmetz saga will have on the game.

The second five-eighths walked out on Wellington and has hired a barrister to argue his right to shift to Dunedin after All Black Pita Alatini signalled his move to Wellington.

Jason O'Halloran, who has taken his place, will be making his final appearance for Wellington and this may draw the players closer together.


2001 NPC schedule/scoreboard

NPC Division One squads