Preview: Hawke's Bay v Counties Manukau
Friday, September 6, 2013 Sportal.co.nz Getty Images
HEAD TO HEAD: Played 49; Hawke's Bay 27, Counties Manukau 21, drawn 1.
LAST TIME: August 31, 2012 (Napier) – Hawke's Bay 37-30 Counties Manukau.
WALKING WOUNDED: Hawke's Bay should only be without the services of prop Ben Franks, who is away with the All Blacks in Hamilton.
Conversely, Counties Manukau coach Tana Umaga could be missing a number of key personnel for this clash.
Baden Kerr (hematoma) is still limping around on a corked thigh while captain Fritz Lee will await the result of a judicial hearing for his dangerous tackle on Auckland flanker Sean Polwart.
Wing Toni Pulu was in hospital this week with a leg infection and All Blacks training squad member Frank Halai is carrying a knee injury sustained on Wednesday.
FORM: Hawke's Bay may have become the favourites in the championship if it wasn't for a second-half capitulation against Bay of Plenty two weeks ago.
Apart from that minor hiccup, the Magpies have been fairly convincing in their work. While their first-up encounter against Manawatu was a walk in the park, last week's shield victory required a truly sensational performance.
Thanks to some hard-nosed forward play, and Ihaia West's brilliance, the Magpies did just that.
Beating them will be a mammoth task for Counties Manukau, who have stumbled out of the blocks this season.
Three losses - to Wellington, Tasman and Auckland - have diminished their spirits, while the latest defeat caused Umaga to lash out at referees for what he deemed to be unfair treatment of his players.
There wasn't a lot of passion on display in their first two losses but some confidence can be taken from the fact that Auckland was forced to kick a conversion from the touch line to get their win.
Lee, in particular, was inspirational at the breakdown while Halai was his usual destructive self on the wing.
WE THINK: It all starts up front and Hika Elliot has signalled that's where Counties will need hit the Magpies hard in order to loosen their grip on the shield.
The eight-season Magpie pointed out the way Bay of Plenty forwards Joe Tupe and Beau Robinson disrupted their ball and created turnovers at crucial moments of the match.
Trouble is, Counties' forwards have been disappointing in all but one of their outings to date.
The personnel hasn't changed a huge deal from last year's impressive pack so Umaga will be hoping the enormity of the occasion will bring out the best in them.
Out in the backs is where fans are likely to get the best entertainment. West and his finishers, Zac Guildford and Telusa Veainu, know how to get over the line, as do their South Auckland counterparts.
If Kerr does not make it back for this match, replacement first-five Ki Anufe showed against Auckland that he has an educated boot which he can used to control territory. Not to mention the ability to slot goals from inside his own half.
There's no doubt this one will go to the wire. Hawke's Bay certainly have the advantage, thanks to what will be a boisterous home crows at a packed McLean park.
Exactly 16 of New Zealand's rugby unions have won the Log o'Wood. Counties Manukau is not one of them.
Striving to earn the respect of the bigger union, the Steelers have huge motivation to get their first shield challenge win in 25 attempts.
Unfortunately, we feel discipline may be their undoing in this one. They were the most penalised team overall in 2012 and it's what let them down against Auckland.
The shield should stay in Napier for a while longer, and Hawke's Bay fans will be glad to have avoided being given then record for the shortest reign. Hawke's Bay by six.
Hawke's Bay: TBC
Counties Manukau: TBC
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