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Wary Southland brace for Shield Challenge

getty

Thursday, September 9, 2010    NZPA    getty

With the shield also at stake, Southland co-coach Simon Culhane is well aware his team will need to lift their game after their five-game ITM Cup winning run was halted 33-22 in Whangarei last Saturday.

Although reluctant to pinpoint complacency as a factor in last week's loss, Culhane admitted his team's usually impenetrable defence was not up to scratch.

After conceding just 80 points in their opening five matches, Southland coughed up 33 as Northland ran in four tries for the bonus-point win.

"That's one of the first indications that you're not quite where you should be mentally," Culhane told NZPA today.

"We did things out of character to what we've been doing for most of the year. The signs were there that we probably weren't as well prepared as we should have been."

After a wealth of ball was squandered last week, Culhane will be looking to his attacking line to cut back errors and make better use of possession tomorrow.

While the top of the table is becoming congested -- there are only four points separating the top seven teams -- North Harbour are mired near the bottom, with only two wins from six starts.

Culhane, however, is wary of taking the northerners too lightly.

"They're pretty dangerous from broken play -- they have ability to counterattack and create opportunities from nothing.

"They've shown a real strength in doing that."

North Harbour coach Craig Dowd has isolated his team's defensive effort as needing massive improvement if they want to pressure Southland.

Competitive for much of last week's 27-36 loss to Waikato, he said Harbour would have to cut down on the defensive errors to have any chance of stretching Southland.

"Against Waikato, things were working and at times we looked very dangerous. But some defensive errors, the one-on-one tackling let us down.

"We're not playing bad rugby, but we're making bad choices and we're making errors," Dowd said.

"At the end of the day, we're leaking too many points and that's what's putting us under pressure."

North Harbour is light on experience, with only Luke McAlister remaining from the team which lifted the shield from Canterbury in 2006, but Dowd said that might not be a disadvantage.

"We don't have a very experienced team, but that's the reality. It'll be a big occasion for them, but in some ways, they know no better so it might work in our favour.
"We've looked at Southland, we know they've a very strong forward pack and they've got a very, very good defensive structure," Dowd said.

"We're going to have to be clever about how we handle them."

In other games this weekend, defending champions Canterbury will again have the services of Sonny Bill Williams, named to start at second five-eighth for the clash with Northland in Whangarei on Saturday.

Second-placed Wellington will have to regather after last weekend's 24-36 loss to Manawatu when they play Auckland at Eden Park on Saturday

Saturday's other match sees Hawke's Bay, struggling with one win from six matches, do battle iwith mid-table improvers Waikato in Napier.

On Sunday, bottom-placed Otago will be looking to add to their first win of the season -- 17-16 over Hawke's Bay last week -- when they play Tasman in Nelson.

In the final game of the weekend, fourth-placed Counties-Manukau will have to be on their game against sixth-placed Taranaki when they travel to New Plymouth.

The round kicks off tonight when Manawatu look to back up last week's win over Wellington against Bay of Plenty in Mt Maunganui.