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Preview: Waikato v Otago

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Friday, August 23, 2013    Sportal.co.nz    Getty Images

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 50; Waikato 29, Otago 20, drawn 1.

LAST TIME: Waikato 25 def Otago 10, August 14, 2011 (Hamilton)

MISSING IN ACTION: Waikato welcome back captain Matt Vant Leven after the No.8's rest following the Investec Super Rugby final. He is joined by fellow Chiefs team-mate Ben Tameifuna, who will start from the bench.

Centre Save Tokula will be hoping Friday's game will be one to remember in what is his 50th appearance in the Waikato colours.

For Otago, promising outside back Buxton Popoali'i is unavailable after straining a hamstring in Otago's 32-29 win over Bay of Plenty.

Kieran Moffatt could also miss the match due to a calf injury. He has pencilled in to start at right wing, with Matt Faddes coming in if the wing is deemed unfit.

FORM: Both sides come into this match with tight crossover wins in the opening round of the 2013 competition.

Waikato fended off a spirited challenge from Rene Ranger and his Northland side 31-22 on Saturday to retain the Ranfurly Shield for the third time after wins over Horowhenua-Kapiti and East Coast in the pre-season.

Waikato's saviour came in the unlikely form of Toby Smith, the prop securing the win in the final five minutes to consign Northland to another blown challenge.

If Waikato's win was down to one of their forwards, then Otago's three-point win over Bay of Plenty was down to their backline.

As expected, a star quality backline littered with Super Rugby regulars was too much for Bay of Plenty to cope with. The lead changed several times only for the hosts to rely on the reliable Hayden Parker, who was near perfect with the kicking tee to see Otago home.

WE THINK:
It's been a disappointing 23-challenge drought for Otago that spans some 56 years, but the end could very well be in sight for coach Tony Brown's men come Friday.

It would certainly be an upset of some magnitude reduced only by the visitors' resurgence over the last season.

Waikato will be nervous. They made their last Shield defence a lot more difficult than it needed to be and given the character Otago showed to remain in the hunt after going down early, it could very well be a more even contest than most would pick.

The sensible punter would pick a Waikato victory, but there's something about the Otago team that has the potential to create history and provide the region with another sporting high as they look to secure a Ranfurly Shield, national ice hockey championship and field hockey championship treble this weekend. It's hard to turn down the upset, so we're going with it! Otago by 2.

TEAMS:
Waikato:
1. Toby Smith, 2. Brayden Mitchell, 3. Paul-Alo Emile, 4. Brian Alainu'uese, 5. Sam Kilgour, 6. Rory Grice, 7. Jack Lam, 8. Matt Vant Leven, 9. Kylem O'Donnell, 10. Sam Christie, 11. Joe Webber, 12. Jackson Willison, 13. Save Tokula, 14. Tim Mikkelson, 15. Trent Renata.

Substitutes: 16. Vance Elliott, Ben Tameifuna, 18. Chris Middleton, 19. Jono Armstrong, 20 Mick Snowden, 21. Wharenui Hawera, 22. Semisi Masirewa.

Otago:
1. Craig Millar, 2. Liam Coltman, 3. Scott Manson, 4. Tom Donnelly, 5. Tom Franklin, 6. Gareth Evans, 7. Lee Allan, 8. Paul Grant (c), 9. Fumiaki Tanaka, 10. Hayden Parker, 11. Fa'aisu Fuatai, 12. Peter Breen, 13. Michael Collins, 14. Kieran Moffat/Matt Faddes, 15. Tony Ensor.

Substitutes: 16. Sam Anderson-Heather, 17. Tama Tuirirangi, 18. Charlie O'Connell, 19. TJ Ioane, 20. Willis Scott, 21. Josh Renton, 22. Jayden Spence.