Preview: Waikato v Wellington

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Friday, September 27, 2013    Getty Images

Having lost the Shield there's something even more important for Waikato to play for: Premiership survival.

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 66; Wellington 35, Waikato 30, drawn 1.
LAST TIME: September 15, 2012 (Wellington)-Wellington 29-13 Waikato.

MISSING IN ACTION: Usual captain Jackson Willison's shoulder injury means prop Toby Smith will be handed the reins for the hosts. Sam Christie will take Willison's spot at first five-eighths, while Wharenui Hawera is promoted to the starting XV.

Flanker Zak Hohneck earns his second start of the season, pushing Jono Armstrong to the bench.

There are also two changes in the reserves, with Joe Perawiti and Joe Webber both named on the bench.

Wellington have made two changes to their 22-man squad, with Reggie Goodes replacing John Schwalger in the No.1 jersey. Faifili Levave returns from an injury and is named on the bench.

FORM: A valiant Ranfurly Shield challenge last Saturday saw Waikato come up fruitless in a 25-37 defeat to Counties Manukau. Despite picking up the first points they never really looked in the match and with a testosterone-filled Counties Manukau side on a roll there was an air of inevitability that Waikato would miss out on the reclaiming the Ranfurly Shield.

Waikato's defence was scratchy against Counties Manukau but there is at least something to play for. A victory would leave a 10-point gap between themselves and Bay of Plenty in the battle to avoid relegation in 2014. Failing to pick up any points from this game could heap a slight bit of pressure on Waikato, with the two sides at the bottom of the division playing each other next Saturday. They do, however, have an extra match up their sleeve and play Tasman on the Wednesday.

There isn't too much to analyse in Wellington's season so far apart from the fact the side is still unbeaten after seven games. Questions were asked of the side's form after it had won their opening six rounds but hadn't faced a title-contending team in the process. They put all of those worries to bed with a calm, composed and clinical 25-19 victory to establish a four-point gap between themselves and the five-time defending champions at the top of the ladder with three rounds to play.

It will be interesting to see how Waikato handle the pressure at home, but expect Wellington to walk away with their untarnished record intact.

Waikato will take confidence from the fact that, last weekend's six-point win over Canterbury aside, Wellington's defence has leaked tries against inferior teams. Who could forget when they held a significant lead over North Harbour only to win 35-27, or when some late tries covered up a poor start in their match against Bay of Plenty?

Wellington, however, learned from their defensive errors and hold the second-best defence in the competition. Having conceded 112 points in seven games, Wellington only trails Canterbury's 101 points. Whether Wellington can put in two consecutive defensive masterclasses remains to be seen and could be the difference between them winning the ITM Cup or coming so close and falling short.

Expect a tight encounter for the first three quarters of the match, but Wellington's class and superior experience in the forwards should see them home. Wellington by 12.

1. Toby Smith (c), 2. Brayden Mitchell, 3. Ben Tameifuna, 4. Nick Ross, 5. Sam Kilgour, 6. Rory Grice, 7. Zak Hohneck, 8. Adam Burn, 9. Brad Weber, 10. Wharenui Hawera, 11. Semisi Masirewa, 12. Sam Christie, 13. Save Tokula, 14, Tim Mikkelson, 15. Trent Renata.

Substitutes: 16. Vance Elliott, 17. Paul Alo-Emile, 18. Sean Hohneck, 19. Jono Armstrong, 20. Mick Snowden, 21. Joe Perawiti, 22. Joe Webber.

1. Reggie Goodes, 2. Motu Matu'u, 3. Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 4. Mark Reddish, 5.Kaipati Gaualofa, 6. Brad Shields, 7. Ardie Savea, 8. Victor Vito (c), 9.Tomasi Palu, 10. Lima Sopoaga, 11. Joe Hill, 12. Shaun Treeby, 13. Tim Bateman, 14. Ambrose Curtis, 15. Charlie Ngatai.

Substitutes: 16. John Schwalger, 17. Eric Sione, 18. Faifili Levave, 19. Genesis Mamea, 20. Kayne Hammington, 21. Tau Mamea, 22. Afa Fa'atau.