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Preview: CountiesManukau v Otago

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Friday, October 26, 2012    Getty Images

Over the years this rivalry is one of the closest in the provincial game, and a lot of the matches are just as hard-fought.

VENUE & TIME: Ecolight Stadium, Pukekohe, Friday October 26 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 34; Counties-Manukau 16, Otago 18.

LAST TIME: September 14, 2012 (Pukekohe, round 5) – Counties-Manukau 43-12 Otago.

WALKING WOUNDED: Counties has made one change from the team that beat Southland, with Mark Selwyn starting on the blindside and Ma'ama Vaipulu dropping back to the bench. Apart from introducing its two All Black backs, Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith, into the lineup, Otago kept its changes to a minimum. Sam Anderson-Heather has dropped out of the 22, with Liam Coltman moving to hooker and Tama Tuirirangi going back into prop after missing the semi through injury.

FORM:
Counties-Manukau:
Round 7: lost to Auckland 18-22 (a)
Round 8: lost to Waikato 28-32 (h)
Round 9: lost to Tasman 19-28 (h)
Round 10: beat Northland 44-31 (a)
Semi: beat Southland 48-23 (h)

Otago:
Round 7: lost to Hawke's Bay 15-21 (a)
Round 8: beat Manawatu 51-35 (a)
Round 9: lost to Wellington 22-49 (h)
Round 10: lost to Auckland 19-24 (h)
Semi: beat Tasman 41-34 (h)

Counties stumbled a little towards the end of the season after tearing it up in the first few weeks, but still qualified first and then – after a hard struggle – put Southland away in the semi. The bare score doesn't really tell the story of how hard the Steelers had to work, since they were behind until the last quarter and four late tries inflated the margin. When they finally got going, after absorbing pressure for a long time, we saw them at their best and some of the interplay was first-rate. They have been a dangerous attacking side throughout the competition, and that shows no signs of abating as the big game looms.

Otago nearly threw their semi away, as Tasman made the Dark Blues pay for two careless moments early in the second spell. Flat passes that were designed to skip three defenders only got past two; both times they were picked off by the Tasman speedsters and the tries were scored down the other end. For Otago to come back from there was a good effort; they really cashed in when Filipo Levi was in the bin and were in front when he came back; they remained there thanks to good pressure through the forwards and some outstanding goal-kicking by Glenn Dickson. Otago has been hard to put away all season, and this was another example of how the team has no quit in it.

WHO'S HOT: For Counties to win this game, the big blokes up front will have to work hard. There's plenty of experience in the pack and Simon Lemalu, who has been around for ages now, has a big job facing up to Tama Tuirirangi, another veteran. Lemalu needs to get the scrum solidly anchored in this match; his round-the-field work will be a bonus. It's been noted before that Daniel Adongo is now a good ITM Cup player – big, hard, and the sort of guy who will work at the coalface all day. Any time he thumps into anyone, they know about it. The backline is full of players who can turn a match, but throughout the season one of the best has been Sherwin Stowers. He has pace to burn and the experience to know how to use it best, while he often finds that little gap in an opposing defence. Whenever he has the ball in hand – or is looming as a likely receiver – Otago had better watch out.

The Otago pack may not contain many big stars, but it does include a number of willing and talented workers. Two of them are Rob Verbakel and Gareth Evans, who have both put in big seasons. Verbakel is likely to be one of the main go-to men in the lineout (although having Adam Thomson in there gives Otago another excellent choice), while he has been strong around the park. Evans is one of those non-stop No 8s that every team loves to have in this competition, because you don't get very far without one. He's quick, clever and not one to go hiding when there's hard work to be done. The backline has been exciting all season and the most impressive of a number of well-performed players is Japan test halfback Fumiaki Tanaka. He is a dynamic player, always on the ball and fast to move it, but it is his option-taking that often gets the line moving – he has a habit of hitting the right guy at the right time.

WE THINK: There really isn't much between these two teams, despite the earlier result. Otago didn't go quietly in that game and Counties had to turn in a near-flawless second 40 minutes to put them away. Both teams have similar strengths, especially behind the scrum, and the winner will likely be determined by whoever makes the fewest errors when the heat is on. This one is real coin-toss stuff, especially as both teams can finish under a wet sail but Counties, at home in front of a faithful public who have waited a long time for this, may just have a narrow edge.

TEAMS:
Counties-Manukau: 1. Simon Lemalu, 2. Mahonri Schwalger, 3. Matt Talaese, 4. Ronald Raaymakers, 5. Daniel Adongo, 6. Mark Selwyn, 7. DJ Forbes (capt), 8. Jimmy Tupou, 9. August Pulu, 10. Baden Kerr, 11. Sherwin Stowers, 12. Bundee Aki, 13. Reynold Lee-Lo, 14. Tony Pulu, 15. Tim Nanai-Williams.

Reserves: 16. Suliasi Taufalele, 17. Maka Tatafu, 18. Sikeli Nabou, 19. Ma'ama Vaipulu, 20. David Bason, 21. Kane Hancy, 22. Tyrone Lefau.

Otago: 1. Aki Seiuli, 2. Liam Coltman, 3. Tama Tuirirangi, 4. Jackson Hemopo, 5. Rob Verbakel, 6. Adam Thomson, 7. Lee Allen, 8. Gareth Evans, 9. Fumiaki Tanaka, 10. Hayden Parker, 11. Buxton Popoali'i, 12. Glenn Dickson (capt), 13. Tamati Ellison, 14. Marshall Suckling, 15. Ben Smith.

Reserves: 16. Shota Horie, 17. Jacob Ellison, 18. Adam Hill, 19. TJ Ioane, 20. Peter Breen, 21. Jayden Spence, 22. Tony Ensor.

REFEREE: Keith Brown