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Preview: Otago v North Harbour

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011    Sportal.co.nz    Getty Images

VENUE & TIME: Carisbrook, Dunedin, Thursday July 14 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 31; Otago 20 wins, North Harbour 11.

LAST TIME: August 19, 2010 (Albany) – North Harbour 35-23 Otago.

WALKING WOUNDED: While six players in the run-on XV are making their Otago debut, five are experienced provincial players with other unions and there are a couple more new arrivals on the bench. As well Tony Brown and Ben Atiga add plenty of experience in the backline. Nobody was listed as unavailable due to injury for the Dark Blues. The only injury scratching for North Harbour was Luke McAlister, who has missed the pre-season with some niggles picked up in the Super rugby season. Otherwise Liam Barry had a full squad to choose from, including a number of returnees from offshore contracts who bring plenty of experience to the team.

FORM: Both teams turned in a decent pre-season, without playing any of the big guns from the top end of the Premiership division. Otago's best win of three was in the rain and slush at Invercargill a week ago, when the forwards took them to a 13-8 victory in what should prove to be a good dress-rehearsal for the season opener. North Harbour beat two neighbouring unions, Northland and Counties-Manukau, with the more decisive victory coming over the Steelers in their second outing.

WHO'S HOT: It's a bit early to be picking hot hands and on Thursday night there might be a lot of cold ones, but several players will be the focus of much attention. For Otago that will include Tom Donnelly, who must still be in the national selectors' thinking even if he isn't in their team just now; Tony Brown, who should bring a veteran's calmness and an accurate boot to a backline that struggled to make any headway a year ago; and Buxton Popoali'i, who threatened to impress at Wellington without ever getting a consistent run in the starting XV. He's given a chance in the south to show the talent many believe he possesses. On the North Harbour side locks Chris Smith and James King have a lot to live up to, since Harbour had the most accurate lineout in the competition a year ago and the set piece was not one of the team's many problems. King, in particular, looks likely to progress to the next level sooner rather than later and will be looking for a big season in 2011. After his overseas stint, Rudi Wulf has been placed at centre rather than in the back three and his defence, which has always been good, should shore up what was a sieve-like midfield. Harbour scored plenty of points last season but gave up at least 20 in every match, so reliable defence up the middle is key to a better result this year.

WE THINK: With miserable conditions forecast, this match will be decided in favour of whichever team plays them better. The sides are evenly matched, so what swings the call in Otago's favour is the fact they played (and beat) Southland in similar weather a week ago. There won't be many points and it won't be pretty, but a win will be the only thing that matters.

TEAMS:
Otago: 1. Halani Aulika, 2. Jason MacDonald, 3. Kees Meeuws, 4. Daniel Ramsay, 5. Tom Donnelly, 6. Regan Tamihere, 7. Eben Joubert (capt), 8. Gareth Evans, 9. Sean Romans, 10. Tony Brown, 11. Buxton Popoali'i, 12. Sam Giddens, 13. Ben Atiga, 14. Joe Hill, 15. Glenn Dickson.
Reserves: 16. Liam Coltman, 17. James McGougan, 18. Rob Verbakel, 19. TJ Ioane, 20. Johnny Legg, 21. Jayden Spence, 22. Matt Faddes, 23. Scott Manson.

North Harbour: 1. Mike Reid, 2. James Parsons, 3. Ben Afeaki, 4. Chris Smith, 5. James King, 6. Solomon King, 7. Brent Wilson, 8. Matt Luamanu, 9. Chris Smylie (capt), 10. Ben Botica, 11. Nafi Tuitavake, 12. Brendon Watt, 13. Rudi Wulf, 14. David Raikuna, 15. Codey Rei.
Reserves: 16. Mike Mayhew, 17. Taione Vea, 18. James Afoa, 19. Irwin Finau, 20. Scott Uren, 21. Luke Hamilton, 22. Willie Walker, 23. Ken Pisi.

REFEREE: Glen Jackson