Waikato v Southland
Hamilton, 7.35 tonight
It was little more than a year ago when the All Blacks' first five-eighths pecking order seemed set.
Sabbaticals and Achilles injuries aside, Dan Carter was the king and Stephen Donald his heir apparent.
Things have changed. Since the 2009 Tri-Nations, Donald has had to contend with a challenge from Chiefs teammate Mike Delany on the end-of-year tour, a dramatic loss of form during the Super 14 that saw his name missing from the June internationals, and a chest injury that has prevented any involvement in the ITM Cup.
Until now. Donald has been named on the bench for tonight's game against high-flying Southland.
"Stephen has come through his injury rehab really well. He has been working with both Chiefs and Waikato trainers and he's itching to get back on the field," coach Chris Gibbes said.
In the past couple of months Donald has seen his name slip below Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade. In all likelihood, he now sits in a group looking up that includes Delany and Canterbury's Stephen Brett.
Donald, 27, does not have long to push his case for a spot on the end-of-year tour, but a strong finish to the campaign would serve two purposes: it would keep his name from slipping completely of the All Blacks' radar and it would help Waikato in their quest for an NPC title to sit alongside those won in 2006 and 1992.
It is a measure of how tight it is at the top of the ladder that if Waikato, in sixth, were to win scoring four tries while denying Southland a bonus point, they would leapfrog the Ranfurly Shield holders, who sit second.
Scoring four tries against Southland is no mean feat. In seven matches they have conceded 12, including three dubious efforts in one match against Hawkes Bay.
North Harbour scored three last week and Manawatu two in week one, but really it is only Northland, who scored four in week six, who have made any damaging dents in the Southland defensive shield.
"Defensively Southland are very strong and they put a lot of pressure on teams so we need a strong set piece and ball carries on attack," Gibbes said.
More ominously, Southland recovered their try-scoring touch when torching Harbour last weekend.
WAIKATO v SOUTHLAND
Nathan White (c)
A. de Malmanche
Waikato reserves: Vern Kamo, Ben May, Romana Graham, Alex Bradley, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Stephen Donald, Henry Speight.
Southland reserves: Brayden Mitchell, Nick Barrett, Alex Ryan, Dion Bates, Sonny Rangitoheriri, Seminar Manu, Mark Wells.