Preview: Auckland v Counties Manukau

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Thursday, August 11, 2011    Getty Images

VENUE & TIME: Eden Park, Auckland, Thursday August 11 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 53; Auckland 41, Counties-Manukau 11, drawn 1.

LAST TIME: October 9, 2010 (Pukekohe) – Counties-Manukau 13-37 Auckland.

WALKING WOUNDED: Auckland has made four changes, although that may be increased by one if Charlie Faumuina's foot problem prevents him from playing. If that happens, Tom McCartney will move to prop with Ash Dixon taking over as hooker. Josh Townsend has recovered from the concussion he sustained against Southland to take his place. The Steelers show minimal changes from the side that went so well against Waikato although the back three has been shuffled to allow Tim Nanai-Williams to return.

Round 2: lost to Otago 25-32 (h)
Round 3: beat Wellington 21-17 (a)
Round 4: lost to Taranaki 11-39 (a)
Round 5: beat Southland 39-26 (h)
Round 6: beat North Harbour 29-13 (a)

Round 2: beat Manawatu 32-25 (h)
Round 3: beat Tasman 32-23 (a)
Round 4: lost to Southland 14-22 (a, RS)
Round 5: lost to Otago 14-30 (a)
Round 6: lost to Waikato 15-22 (h)

Ten points in its last two games have propelled Auckland out of the lower reaches of the table and into the middle and, with other results falling its way recently, back into a challenging position for a top-two finish. Auckland will be aware that it has a nasty final burst (Bay of Plenty at home, Waikato away), and so more points here are almost vital to maintain that charge up the ladder. The backs, who looked so dangerous on paper, are now doing it on the field and the team is prospering as a result. Counties-Manukau has endured a tough fortnight, with two matches in the deep south followed by one in heavy rain and wind last Sunday, and the Steelers have managed to collect just one point in that spell. They are now two clear games out of the playoff picture and, with time running out, possibly destined for a mid-table finish. Penalty goals are killing Counties; in the last three matches Southland kicked five, Otago six and Waikato five – 16 goals from a total of 17 chances. Only three teams have conceded fewer tries than the Steelers, but only four have conceded more points.

WHO'S HOT: Tom McCartney is leading Auckland well, but his biggest value at present is his non-stop work ethic in a pack that has suffered more than its share of injuries. Everything he does is being done well. Nathan Hughes has made the blindside spot his own this year and shows out with good lineout work, strong ball-carries and solid defence. Of all Auckland's first-year players he has come on the most. Brent Ward is a long way from a first-year man and uses his experience and knowledge of where to be to telling effect. Although not as quick as he once was, he adds a lot on attack and is secure on defence. Grant Henson plays his 100th match for Counties-Manukau on Thursday, joining an illustrious band of steely Steelers who have previously done so. Like many others in Counties 100 club, he may not have had much exposure at higher levels but he has been a true stalwart for the union in good days and bad. Jamie Chipman is one of the few from any team to start every game so far in 2011, and he must have taken a pounding over the concentrated competition. It's not showing, though, and he continues to battle on at the head of his team in real follow-me style. Baden Kerr had a good outing in the difficult conditions against Waikato, impressing with 5/5 goal-kicking and generally calm control. He is a good prospect for the side in coming campaigns and an important man in this game.

WE THINK: Auckland should be able to win this match although the forwards will have to dig in. If anything has impressed in the Steelers recent work, it has been the never-say-die attitude of the big men. In recent weeks Auckland has just looked better than it did to start its campaign and with more settled combinations in place should be good for a 10-point win.


Auckland: 1. Tevita Mailau, 2. Tom McCartney (capt) or Ash Dixon, 3. Charlie Faumuina or McCartney, 4. Steve Luatua, 5. Josh Townsend, 6. Nathan Hughes, 7. Sean Polwart, 8. Chris Lowrey, 9. Alby Mathewson, 10. Gareth Anscombe, 11. George Moala, 12. Teddy Stanaway, 13. Hadleigh Parkes, 14. Joe Rokocoko, 15. Brent Ward.

Reserves: 16. Dixon or Nathan Vella, 17. Pauliasi Manu, 18. Ben Masoe, 19. Sam Henwood, 20. Toby Morland, 21. Piers Francis, 22. Winston Stanley, 23. Angus Ta'avao.

Counties-Manukau: 1. Simon Lemalu, 2. Grant Henson, 3. Matt Talaese, 4. Chris McLaren, 5. Jamie Chipman (capt) or Ronald Raaymakers, 6. Raaymakers or Taiasina Tuifua, 7. DJ Forbes, 8. Fritz Lee, 9. David Bason, 10. Baden Kerr, 11. Sherwin Stowers, 12. Tasesa Lavea, 13. Reynold Lee-Lo, 14. Ahsee Tuala, 15. Tim Nanai-Williams.

Reserves: 16. Mark Price, 17. Jeremiah Fatialofa, 18. Adam Cathcart, 19. Mark Selwyn, 20. August Pulu, 21. James Semple, 22. Tyrone Lefau, 23. Peter Hale.

REFEREE: James McPhail