Preview: North Harbour v Hawke’s Bay

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Saturday, September 27, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Saturday 27 September, 7.35pm at QBE Stadium, North Harbour
Played: 13, 1986-2013
Hawke's Bay wins: 5 | North Harbour wins: 7 | Draws: 1

Squad update: There are three overall changes to Harbours team, two selection based and one positional, but otherwise coach Steve Jackson has kept the faith with the bulk of the side that accounted for Canterbury with a 29-24 victory.

The return of Pita Ahki via injury will see the second five-eighth regain his starting spot, with Matt McGahan moving into first five-eighth replacing Dan Halangahu.

The pack is unchanged, although Alex Woonton is on standby to start at loosehead prop with Greg Pleasants-Tate battling a hematoma.

Hawke’s Bay enter this contest fresh from a 36-17 Shield defence against Bay of Plenty, but have made some changes to their team with Wellington looming in round eight as the next challenger.

Jason Shoemark and Chris Eaton are replaced by Billy Ropiha and Ellery Wilson at second five-eighth and halfback respectively in the only changes to the Magpies impressive back division.

Up front there are mass changes, with number eight Gareth Evans, lock Mark Abbott and tighthead Jason Marshall the only players backing up from last week.

Form: Harbour’s victory resonated around the competition, proving that Canterbury are indeed mortal but most importantly proving to Harbour that they are a much better side than their win/loss ledger might suggest.

However something about the Magpies of late has troubled North Harbour, the last time the two teams played Harbour shipped 55 points, but a victory here could potentially lift the home province into the Championship top four.

The Shield is a slight distraction for the Magpies, for they put the trophy up against a desperate Wellington next week, yet cannot take their eye off the ball as they are legitimate contenders for the crown.

A loss here will see Northland and Manawatu stretch further ahead at the top of the ITM Cup Championship table.

Last match: Hawke's Bay 55 North Harbour 10, 29.09.13 in Napier (ITMC)

Last North Harbour win: Hawke's Bay 28 North Harbour 28, 27.06.01 in Napier (NPC)

Biggest Hawke's Bay score: 55 (55-10), 29.09.13 in Napier (ITMC)

Biggest North Harbour score: 48 (48-17), 13.09.92 in Takapuna (NPC)

Biggest differential: Hawke's Bay by 45 (55-10), 29.09.13 in Napier (ITMC)

Key players: Harbour’s forwards were all fire and brimstone against Canterbury last week and with minimal changes will want to again prove a point against a rival pack that has made plenty of alterations.

However out wide Harbour’s weapons have the potential to cause the Magpies some big problems, with Bryn Hall immense against the red and blacks, while McGahan and Matt Vaega were constantly threatening against the usually organised Canterbury defence.

There is a slight risk for the Magpies with over half of their pack changed, but Ihaia West is proving himself to be a first five-eighth for all occasions and will look to control the tempo irrespective with what is happening in front of him.

Elsewhere in the backline Shannan Chase, Ryan Tongia and Richard Buckman have emerged as quite contrasting cult heroes, while Robbie Fruean has been rediscovering some of his rampaging form.