Preview: Southland v Northland

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Saturday, September 13, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Saturday 13 September, 4.35pm at Rugby Park, Invercargill
Played: 34, 1947–2013
Southland wins: 16 | Northland wins: 18

Squad update: Twenty-one year old winger Keanu Kahukura will get his first start of the 2014 campaign, after Southland coach Brad Mooar decided to make minimal changes.

Mark Jackman moves back into the midfield, while players not required for duty have not been released as the Stags have a short turnaround from this match, playing Tasman on Wednesday.

It was considered somewhat controversial at the time when Northland coach Derren Witcombe called on local players when forming his squad this year, but the Taniwha’s strong local club scene has ensured a team with not one Investec Super Rugby player has looked the business.

Daniel Hawkins gets better with each outing at first five-eighth, but Northland’s real power comes from their pack.

Led by last round’s two try hero Jack Ram, the Taniwha’s back row is among the best in the ITM Cup, with the explosive flanker well supported by Dan Pryor and Cam Eyre.

Form: The Stags showed some promise early in the season but are potentially facing three straight losses here against the inform Northlanders.

Defeats to Otago and Taranaki means that Southland is fifth in the Championship, and with a triple header against the Taniwha, Tasman and Turbos to come, the possession friendly Stags will need to start doing more with the ball.

The Taniwha are fast becoming one of the darlings of the competition, with their 40-23 rousing victory over Otago yet another example of the commitment, heart and attack of this Northland team, who will overtake Manawatu at the top with victory.

Last match: Northland 13 Southland 9 24.08.13 in Whangarei (ITMC)

Last Southland win: Southland 16 Northland 12, 26.09.12 in Invercargill (ITMC)

Biggest Southland score: 54 (54–26), 28.08.04 in Invercargill (NPC)

Biggest Northland score: 48 (48–12), 13.10.01 in Whangarei (NPC)

Biggest differential: Northland by 36 (48–12), 13.10.01 in Whangarei (NPC)

Key players: Looking through Southland’s strong roster one expects this to be a competitive match, with Lima Sopoaga having plenty of options outside of him.

However captain Jamie Mackintosh, aided by lieutenants Josh Bekhuis, John Hardie and Tim Boys, will need to lay the platform against the impressive visitors.

Northland once again have a squad that isn’t overly familiar to those outside of region, even if some of those players are becoming known after the team went back-to-back for the first time since 2012 with their win over Otago - while they have won more games this season so far than the whole of last campaign.

If Viliami Tahitu’a, Kurt Davies and Matt Wright keep getting quality ball in the back division then the Taniwha’s march towards title contention will continue.