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Preview: North Harbour v Wellington

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Thursday, August 25, 2011    Sportal.co.nz    Getty Images

VENUE & TIME: North Harbour Stadium, Albany, Friday August 26 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 24; North Harbour 11, Wellington 13.

LAST TIME: October 10, 2010 (Albany) – North Harbour 23-52 Wellington.

WALKING WOUNDED: North Harbour has made only two changes, with James Afoa returning to the front row and World-Cup bound Anthony Boric playing his first game for weeks at lock. Dane Coles and a couple of Gisborne lads, Hosea Gear and Charlie Ngatai, return for Wellington; Gear taking his place after being dumped from the All Black World Cup squad at the 11th hour. Otherwise the run-on XV is unchanged from the one that played Waikato.

FORM:
North Harbour:
Round 5: lost to Manawatu 21-32 (a)
Round 6: lost to Auckland 13-29 (h)
Round 7: lost to Southland 23-25 (a, RS)
Round 8: lost to Counties-Manukau 32-40 (a)
Round 9: beat Northland 33-26 (h)

Wellington:
Round 5: lost to Hawke's Bay 20-40 (a)
Round 6: beat Northland 43-19 (h)
Round 7: lost to Manawatu 25-31 (h)
Round 8: beat Southland 30-25 (h)
Round 9: lost to Waikato 27-31 (a)

Harbour played what was probably its second-vest game of the season against Northland and finally bagged a second win, although it has come much too late to influence what has been an ordinary season. But that game did offer something - a much more committed forward effort and some handy back play - that has been missing for most of the year. Wellington took what may prove to be a vital point in the closing minutes at Hamilton, as the Lions now only need to win to stay in the Premiership. A side like Wellington, with greater resources than most, should not be going into the final match still unsure of its place in the top flight but it has been that sort of year in the Capital. The team has played its best rugby when it absolutely had to, and this is another of those matches that simply must be won.

WHO'S HOT: Mat Luamanu was far more influential last week than in some other games, proving once again that he is one of the best ball-running loose forwards in the country. Still something of a one-way player, he did a lot of damage going forward but will also have to work on defence this week. Anthony Boric simply needs to get game time, and getting through without any injury worries will be close to the top of his priority list. He should still dominate the aerial exchanges and make a difference around the park. Ben Botica kicked all seven goal attempts and maintained his position at the top of the kicking averages for the season. His general play was again sound; he has made a good advance this year. Neemia Tialata plays his last match for Wellington (at least for a while) and will be looking for a decent farewell performance. He will have his work cut out with what has been a strong Harbour front row, and will be asked to get stuck in around the field. Lima Sopoaga has endured a difficult season and emerged with a good deal of credit. He had to take a fair bit of stick for Wellington's lousy early form - the malfunctioning forward pack was hardly his fault, but he still copped it - and has responded with several influential displays and a stream of often important goals. He, like Botica, is well over the 80 percent mark on the year. Hosea Gear was probably intending to be preparing for the World Cup about now, but lost out in the tight back three selection made on Tuesday. He has showed many times that he has the character to fight back, and a decent try bag would make at least make Friday evening a more pleasant occasion.

WE THINK: Wellington should win this match, and should do it comfortably. As noted above, the Lions have won almost every must-win game in 2011 and this is the last time they'll face that scenario. Harbour simply has not troubled the better teams this year and Wellington should be good for a clear win and, probably, a bonus point.

TEAMS:

North Harbour: 1. James Afoa, 2. James Parsons, 3. Ben Afeaki, 4. Anthony Boric, 5. Filo Paulo, 6. Solomon King, 7. Scott Uren, 8. Mat Luamanu, 9. Chris Smylie (capt), 10. Ben Botica, 11. David Raikuna, 12. Brendan Watt, 13. Rudi Wulf, 14. Nafi Tuitavake, 15. Willie Walker.

Reserves: 16. Manu Leiataua, 17. Alex Woonton, 18. James King, 19. Brett Wilson, 20. Luke Hamilton, 21. Pita Ahki, 22. Codey Rei, 23. Taione Vea.


Wellington: 1. Reg Goodes, 2. Dane Coles, 3. Neemia Tialata, 4. Jeremy Thrush (capt), 5. Mark Reddish, 6. Faifili Levave, 7. Scott Fuglistaller, 8. Brad Shields, 9. . TJ Perenara, 10. Lima Sopoaga, 11. Hosea Gear, 12. Charlie Ngatai, 13. Alipate Leiua, 14. Julian Savea, 15. Apoua Stewart.

Reserves: 16. Motu Matu'u, 17. Jacob Ellison, 18. Joe Latta, 19. Dean Brunsdon, 20. Frae Wilson, 21. Michael Lealava'a, 22. Steve Honey, 23. Arden David-Perrot.



REFEREE: Shane McDermott