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Preview: Northland v North Harbour

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Friday, October 14, 2016    Mitre10Cup.co.nz    Getty Images

Form: Both sides can take heart from the fact that both sides have improved this year, even in vastly different contexts. The hosts finally exorcised the demons of old with a commanding win against an ordinary Waikato two weeks ago, in what their first home win in two years at Toll Stadium. It's been the only clear highlight of another disheartening season for Northland fans, and the win against Waikato was the first win since a 58-27 win in the 2014 season against, you guessed it, North Harbour.

For North Harbour, a topsy turvy season has them resting on 21 points, three competition points ahead of Bay of Plenty. A Steamers win in the 'Battle of the Bays' against Hawke's Bay would mean North Harbour would need two competition points to confirm its spot in the semifinals. The visitors enter Sunday's game with some confidence, having claimed a contentious 27-27 draw with Tasman earlier in the round, as well as a loss (18-47, v Canterbury) and a win (44-34, v Bay of Plenty) in its last three games.

Played: 37
Wins: Northland 10, North Harbour 25, Draws 2
Last Time: North Harbour 36, Northland 12, 2015 (Albany)

Teams:
Northland: 1. Namatahi Waa, 2. Matt Moulds (captain), 3. Phil Kite, 4. Epineri Uluiviti, 5. Shane Neville, 6. Michael Faleafa, 7. Kara Pryor, 8. Matt Matich, 9. Matty Marwick, 10. Peter Breen, 11. Monty Lama, 12. Dan Hawkins, 13. Warren Dunn, 14. Jordan Hyland, 15. Solomon Alaimalo.

Reserves: 16. Ross Wright, 17. Howard Silitoto, 18. Matt Talaese, 19. Josh Larsen, 20. Jack Ram, 21. Malcolm MacLeod, 22. Tamati Tua, 23. Waisea Lawebuka.

North Harbour: 1. Nic Mayhew, 2. Adrian Smith, 3. Sione Mafileo, 4. Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 5. Brandon Nansen/Glen Preston, 6. Chris Vui (captain), 7. Connor Collett, 8. Murphy Taramai, 9. Bryn Hall, 10. Bryn Gatland, 11. Tevita Li, 12. Michael Little, 13. Matt Vaega, 14. Matt Duffie, 15. Matt McGahan.

Reserves: 16. Ray Niuia/Vyron Smith, 17. Karl Tu'inukuafe/Jethro Felemi, 18. Hani Fatai, 19. Glenn Preston/Josh Tyrell, 20. Hapakuki Moala-Liavaa, 21. Chris Smylie, 22. Daniel Hilton-Jones, 23. Afa Faatau.

Squad Update: Northland's stand out wing Jone Macilai is unsighted in the Taniwha squad, and it's unknown whether this is due to injury or not. Warren Dunn is elevated to centre, meaning Tamati Tua drops to the bench. Halfback Matty Marwick also gets a chance to impress, while Malcolm MacLeod waits in the wings on the pine.

North Harbour captain James Parsons again sits out the match due to injury, but the visitors do welcome back a number of key personnel. Prop Nic Mayhew returns alongside Brandon Nansen and Bryn Hall in the starting lineup. Chris Vui returns to his preferred blindside flanker spot as a result of Nansen's return.

Key Players: Peter Breen has had a composed season with the Taniwha, having spent time with the Otago side prior to his move north this year. His elevation has seen Dan Hawkins move to second five-eighths, meaning the side has a two-pronged attack at first receiver. Matt Moulds has also impressed with his workrate in 2016, while the Northland side as a whole will need to ensure their offloading prowess comes to the fore.

By contrast, North Harbour are not an offloading side, but this does not mean they lack attacking threats. In Tevita Li, Michael Little and Matt Vaega, North Harbour have one of the better backlines in the Championship. The injection of the composed Chris Smylie at halfback from the bench will be important, while the hard-working Mayhew's return will delight many.