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Preview: Waikato v Counties

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Thursday, October 1, 2015    ITMCup.co.nz    Getty Images

Waikato, by contrast, find themselves in must-win territory as the relegation battle lives on.

Despite Friday's result, both teams will be eyeing up what happens in Saturday’s encounter between Manawatu and Taranaki with plenty of interest. Waikato (16 points) are two points ahead of last-placed Manawatu (14 pts), while Counties Manukau (18 pts) are nine points behind Taranaki (27 pts) in the race for the final playoff spot. The Steelers’ playoff chances are slim at best, but this is the ever-surprising ITM Cup, after all.

Form: Waikato enter this game having played three matches in 12 days, culminating in three defeats. The nature of the first loss, a record 0-41 loss to defending champions Taranaki, was contrasted by tight losses to Canterbury (17-18) and Wellington (14-21). Given the close nature of the relegation battle, the two competition points from those two defeats could prove highly valuable.

Defeat on Friday would not only consign Waikato to missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, it would leave them perilously close to joining the Championship in 2016. Given the clash doubles as a Ranfurly Shield challenge, Waikato will be looking to claim as many competition points as they can on Friday.

Counties Manukau, meanwhile, will be puffing out their chest following a superb 42-33 win over Tasman, their second consecutive bonus point win following an emphatic 42-17 away win over Northland the week before. With their season slipping away following a five match losing streak, it was a desperate Counties side who have fronted in the last fortnight. If they secure another bonus point win over Waikato, they keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

Played: 59
Wins: Waikato 38, Counties Manukau 20
Draws: 1
Last Time: Waikato 26 Counties Manukau 21, Hamilton 2014

Teams:
WAIKATO: 1.Josh Hohneck, 2.Hame Faiva, 3.Ben Tameifuna, 4.James Tucker, 5.Peni Iowane, 6.Whetu Douglas (co-captain), 7.Mitch Jacobson, 8.Adam Burn, 9.Brad Weber (co-captain), 10.Damian McKenzie, 11.Dylan Collier, 12.Jordan Payne, 13.Anton Lienert-Brown, 14.Regan Ware, 15.Shaun Stevenson.

Reserves: 16.Tyrone Te Ruruku, 17.Tau Koloamatagi, 18.Joe Walsh, 19.Zane Kapeli, 20.Josh Tyrell, 21.Harrison Levien, 22.Wharenui Hawera, 23.Chauncy Edwardson.

COUNTIES MANUKAU: 1.Pauliasi Manu, 2.Gafatasi Su’a, 3.Jarrod Firth, 4.Jimmy Tupou (captain), 5.Viliame Rarasea, 6.Jordan Taufua, 7.Sam Henwood, 8.Maama Vaipulu, 9.Richard Judd, 10.Piers Francis, 11.Sione Fifita, 12.Cardiff Vaega, 13.Sam Vaka, 14.Frank Halai, 15.Toni Pulu.

Reserves: 16.Michael Lea, 17.Sean Bagshaw 18.Sam Aiono, 19.Sikeli Nabou, 20.Onosai Auvaa, 21.Pele Cowley, 22.Willy Walker, 23.Johnny Fa’auli.

Squad Update: Ben Tameifuna’s suspension has ended, allowing him to return to his favoured tighthead prop position for Waikato. Fellow prop Loni Uhila has one more match remaining in his suspension, allowing him to be eligible for their Ranfurly Shield challenge against Hawke’s Bay in the final week of round robin. As for Counties Manukau, Dan Hyatt’s back injury has ruled him out of play for the Steelers, while Augustine Pulu remains sidelined following arm surgery.

Key Players: As expected, Waikato co-captain Brad Weber and Damian McKenzie connected well for the Mooloos in their seven-point loss to Wellington last week. Expect another clean performance from McKenzie that will come from rapid ball from the sniping Weber. Tameifuna always adds a bit of extra spice to whatever front row he operates in, and usually takes a number of tacklers to bring down. Can Waikato exploit the numbers game from there?

As for Counties Manukau, captain Jordan Taufua led from the front in the side’s superb come-from-behind win over Tasman last week. Expect Cardiff Vaega to ask plenty of questions at second five-eighths, while Frank Halai has proven in the past to create something out of nothing.