Preview: Counties Manukau v Canterbury

Getty Images

Friday, September 19, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Friday 19 September, 7,35pm at ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe
Played: 34, 1960-2013 
Canterbury wins: 23 | Counties Manukau wins: 10 | Draws: 1

Squad update: The Steelers have clearly have struggled with emotions recently this season, drawing against Taranaki in New Plymouth and defeating Otago, but since losing the Log o’Wood to the Magpies the side has looked a little flat.

Jordan Taufua (flank), Maama Vaipulu (number eight), Augustine Pulu (halfback), Ahsee Tuala (first five-eighth), Toni Pulu (left wing) and Frank Halai (right wing) come into the starting side – a considerable arsenal of players, many of who helped turn the tide last week against Waikato.

For Canterbury the naming of All Blacks lock Dominic Bird will be a boost to an engine room that has looked powerful all campaign, while Siate Tokolahi and Ben Funnell get starts in the front row.

Johnny McNicholl returns from injury and has been give the left wing berth, operating outside the impressive axis of Willi Heinz and Tom Taylor.

Form: Counties had become accustomed to having such a prestigious trophy nearby to enthuse, and while coach Tana Umaga is well aware of this, he has called on his troops to duplicate the second half effort shown against Waikato, with it being a 21-7 final 40 in favour of the Steelers.

As the former All Blacks captain and others have suggested, the hosts are one team yet to show their true quality, so how they stand up against the benchmark union of New Zealand domestic rugby will be an ideal litmus test.

What to say about Canterbury in a few words?

In Round Four it looked like they might have been challenged for the first time, with Otago coming within seven points, but normal order was restored when the red and black machine won the ‘final rematch’ 46-12 against Wellington.

It was the fourth time Canterbury have breached the 40 point mark in 2014 – and they have scored 29 tries while conceding five, a strike rate in another stratosphere compared to other teams.

This will make a win to Counties all the more sweeter, especially with the potential breaking of a 16-year losing streak to the current champions.

Last match: Canterbury 38 Counties Manukau 23, 06.10.13 in Christchurch (ITMC)

Last Counties Manukau win: Counties Manukau 49 Canterbury 42, 10.10.98 in Christchurch (NPC)

Biggest Counties Manukau score: 49 (49-42), 10.10.98 in Christchurch (NPC)

Biggest Canterbury score: 82 (82-22), 04.09.99 in Pukekohe (NPC)

Biggest differential: Canterbury by 60 (82-22), 04.09.99 in Pukekohe (NPC)

Key players: With Counties back to full strength, they have a backline that looks as if it could compete with Canterbury, with Tim Nanai-Williams, Ray Lee-Lo, Halai, Bundee Aki and Pulu as good as any other rear division.

Ronald Raaymakers brings up his half century for the Steelers, and his team-mates up front will want a big match after they turned up the heat in the second half against the Mooloo forwards.

However the big units for Canterbury look ominous, with Matt Todd, Nasi Manu and Luke Whitelock impressive this season in one of the sharpest back rows in the competition. Out wide it is a special game for Adam Whitelock, who plays his 50th match for the side.