Preview: Waikato v Counties

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Sunday, September 14, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Sunday 14 September, 2.35pm at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Played: 58, 1955–2013
Counties Manukau wins: 20 | Waikato wins: 37 | Draws: 1

Squad update: Zak Hohneck, Nick Ross and Wharenui Hawera come into the home team’s starting side, but the group is otherwise fresh with it being nine days since their narrow loss to Tasman.

Hame Faiva, David Morgan and Chauncy Edwardson come into the match day squad, as does All Blacks halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow, who will get some game time off the pine with the national selectors keen to keep their backup nine humming.

Counties, with back-to-back losses are suddenly in danger territory, and coach Tana Umaga hasn’t minced his words when saying that the team hasn’t been playing at the level they are not only capable of, but have reached in recent times.

Sikeli Nabou, Kane Hancy and Sherwin Stowers come into the side, while Rey Lee-lo, Bundee Aki and Toni Puli shift around to second five, centre and right wing respectively.

Form: There is something about the Mooloo this season, still to formally announce themselves as a real contender, but their wins against Wellington and North Harbour were encouraging, while even against Canterbury and Tasman, both heavyweights, they showed promise.

For those mocking that claim versus the red and blacks, Waikato’s 27 points in a losing effort was the most points the champions had conceded since round seven last year, and if the Mooloo can win against the Steelers for the first time since 2011 their fledging promise will evolve further.

Fall from grace is a bit dramatic but Umaga is right is being annoyed, the Steelers have been one of the feel good stories in recent years, although to put it into perspective, the Magpies and Turbos – who accounted for the former Shield holders in the last two rounds - have like Counties been case studies of smaller unions evolving for the better.

Last match: Counties Manukau 37 Waikato 25, 21.09.13 in Pukekohe (ITMC RS)

Last Waikato win: Waikato 22 Counties Manukau 15, 07.08.11 in Pukekohe (ITMC)

Biggest Waikato score: 67 (67–0), 27.05.89 in Pukekohe (NPC)

Biggest Counties Manukau score: 43 (43–40), 18.10.97 in Hamilton (NPC SF); and 43 (43–29), 04.07.01 in Pukekohe (NPC)

Biggest differential: Waikato by 67 (67–0), 27.05.89 in Pukekohe (NPC)

Key players: If Waikato’s young guns fire, especially out wide, there will be problems for the Steelers, even if the lack of experience has cost the Mooloo in some contests.

Brad Weber is captain with just 12 caps, while the most experienced player in the starting XV is openside Zak Hohneck, while Declan O’Donnell with 23 appearances for the province is the ‘old man’ of the back division.

The Steelers, like their opponents, have immense firepower in the rear guard, with Tim Nanai-Williams captaining the side from fullback, but despite the talents of Aki and Stowers, it will be up to the Kane Hancy and Michael Stanley in the halves that will dictate proceedings.