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PREVIEW: Counties Manukau v Canterbury

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Friday, October 14, 2016    allblacks.com    Getty Images

Match details: Counties Manukau v Canterbury, Saturday 15 October, 2.35pm at ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe
Played: 36
Wins: Canterbury 25, Counties Manukau 10, Draws 1
Last match: Canterbury 20 Counties Manukau 15 in 2015
Biggest winning margin: Canterbury by 60 (82–22) in 1999

SQUAD NEWS
With a home semifinal confirmed, Canterbury coach Scott Robertson has made a number of changes to his side for the final round clash. First five-eighth Richie Mo’unga is rested with Fiji international Ben Volavola taking over the ten jersey. In the midfield, Inga Finau makes his run on debut as the back three is rejigged with Jordie Barrett moving to fullback and Johnny McNicholl onto the right wing. Counties Manukau have rolled out the big guns with recent All Blacks Hika Elliot and Pauliasi Manu coming into the front row, Chiefs wing Toni Pulu slotting into the 11 jersey and Augustine Pulu returning from a one-match suspension to start at halfback.

FORM
Canterbury have been the team to beat in 2016 with just one hiccup against Manawatu their only blemish. After claiming the Ranfurly Shield over Waikato in round seven, Canterbury defended the ‘log of wood’ in commanding style against North Harbour last week with a 47-18 win. Counties Manukau were resolute last week in snatching a late 14-16 win over Championship leaders Otago.

KEY BATTLE
While both teams possess an exciting backline and imposing tight fives, the loose forward clash could prove vital to the result. Under the experimental breakdown laws, Counties Manukau have adopted a hard running loose forward trio that have caused carnage around the fringe of the ruck. Canterbury boast two hard ball runners of their own in Luke Whitelock and Tom Sanders while Jed Brown is a traditional type of openside flanker who has taken his opportunity since Matt Todd’s call up to the All Blacks.

VERDICT
The desperate nature of the match for Counties Manukau may give them the edge at home. Despite having top spot wrapped up, Canterbury will not want to let their standards slip but will need to perform at their best to outgun the Steelers. The experience of big game players Jordan Taufua, Augustine Pulu and Hika Elliot maybe enough to secure the Steelers a spot in the playoffs.

TEAMS
Counties Manukau: Luteru Laulala, Sione Fifita, Sam Vaka, Cardiff Vaega, Toni Pulu, Piers Francis, Augustine Pulu, So'otala Fa'aso'o/Onosa'i Auva'a, Jordan Taufua, Jimmy Tupou, Matiaha Martin, Viliame Rarasea, Kalolo Tuiloma/Sean Paranihi, Hika Elliot, Pauliasi Manu; Reserves: Gafatasi Sua, Sean Bagshaw, Kalolo Tuiloma/Sean Paranihi, Matt Vaai, Onosa'i Auva'a/Viliami Taulani, Richard Judd, Joe Ikenasio, Sione Molia

Canterbury: Jordie Barrett, Johnny McNicholl, Jack Goodhue, Inga Finau, George Bridge, Ben Volavola, Ere Enari, Luke Whitelock [captain], Jed Brown, Tom Sanders, Dave McDuling, Scott Barrett, Siate Tokolahi, Ben Funnell, Alex Hodgman. Reserves: Tom Crozier, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Lee-Roy Atalifo, Reed Prinsep, Dylan Nel, Jack Stratton, Nathan Earle, Poasa Waqanibau.