A hamstring injury to All Black Pita Alatini has robbed Otago of a key backline attacker for the final in Christchurch tonight.

Alatini, who has been in the best form of his career this year, pulled his hamstring at Otago's final training session in Dunedin.

He withdrew from the final yesterday and is likely to be replaced at second five-eighth by Seilala Mapusua.

Canterbury will field an unchanged starting XV for the third consecutive week.

Centre George Leaupepe was called into the 22-man Otago squad and is expected to fill a spot on the reserves bench.

Coach Laurie Mains will not decide until today who to play in Alatini's place.

His injury is a cruel blow for Otago and the player himself. The final was to be his last game for the province before his transfer to Wellington.

The hamstring pull must also place in doubt his chances of leaving for the tour of Ireland, Scotland and Argentina with the All Blacks next week.

Canterbury coach Steve Hansen has pledged to continue his side's attacking approach today - if the weather allows.

"Obviously throwing the ball around when it's wet and slippery is not the brightest thing to be doing. We'll just have to change it a wee bit," Hansen said last night.

"But we're fortunate enough to have more than one game plan.

"If it's raining, we'll still be happy to be there. A lot of sides who'll be watching would want to swap places with us."

Hansen expects Otago to play a structured game based around their solid forward pack, "use their big guys to run the ball" and complement it with the attacking skills of Jeff Wilson and Brendan Laney.

Hansen and co-coach Aussie McLean have kept faith in their starting XV.

Halfback Ben Hurst and hooker Tone Kopelani return to the bench, alongside impact players Brad Thorn, Sam Broomhall, Daryl Gibson, Ben Blair and David Hewett.

Mains said Otago had got "a little bit of confidence" out of their form of the last month.

Otago have won their last four games, including an away match against Wellington, which skipper Taine Randell dubbed "a virtual quarter-final," and a resounding 37-10 semifinal victory at North Harbour.

But Mains said Canterbury were "formidable opponents. They don't have any weaknesses and they've got players with vision and enterprise."

He said Otago had long ago put behind them the disappointment of the 19-62 loss to Canterbury during round-robin play.

His side had put a lot of work into improving their performance in the tackle area, where Canterbury flanker Richard McCaw has been a standout this year.

"If there's one thing we have to do in this game, it's to try and not give Canterbury too many opportunities to do what they are so good at," Mains said.

"If you turn over ball or kick loosely to them, they make the most of it."

There are some tantalising individual match-ups between two teams which should comprise the bulk of the All Black squad to be announced tomorrow morning.

But personal duels and national aspirations are being put to the back of all players' minds in a match Canterbury captain Todd Blackadder said pitted "brother against brother."

Emotions are also being kept in check. The NPC final is the last game for Canterbury for Blackadder, hooker Matt Sexton and coach Hansen.

Otago will farewell the injured Alatini, Auckland-bound halfback Byron Kelleher and charismatic utility back Laney, who is soon to be Blackadder's team-mate at Scottish club Edinburgh Reivers.

Former All Black Norm Hewitt says Otago can beat Canterbury, but only if they are prepared to go through the pain barrier.

"That's what finals are all about - attitude - and how much you put your body on the line for your team."

Hewitt should know. He played much of the second half with a broken arm when captaining Wellington to a surprise 34-29 win in the final last year.


2001 NPC schedule/scoreboard

NPC Division One squads