Preview: Southland v Counties Manukau

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Saturday, October 4, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Saturday 4 October, 2.35pm at Rugby Park, Invercargill
Played: 29, 1961-2013
Southland wins: 9 | Counties Manukau wins: 18 | Draws: 2

Squad update: The Stags will take on Counties Manukau without their talismanic first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga. The Wellington import has been at the heart of all four of the Stags' victories this season, but will miss the game at Rugby Park due to a family wedding.

Jamie Verran will start at No 10 with coach Brad Mooar opting to leave Scott Eade at halfback. The two players will both be considered for the kicking duties.

There are just two changes to the Steelers ide that beat Wellington last week. Sikeli Nabou replaces injured lock Ronald Raaymakers and Tim Nanai-Williams comes back in at fullback to replace Sherwin Stowers who is away on sevens duty. The captaincy arm band will be worn by experienced loose forward, Onosa'i Auva'a.

Prop Sam Aiono, lock Viliami Rarasea and loose forward Dan Hyatt, who was out last week with a minor ankle injury will take their place in the reserves.

Form: Southland have won three of their seven games this regular season and sit two competition points outside the top four.

However this doesn’t tell the full story, with the Stags 28-26 victory over Canterbury last round a fine example of the potential of this team, but they will need to defeat the Steelers for the first time since 2011 if they are to keep their season alive.

Counties are in a similar boat, putting together a fine 55-7 demolition of Wellington in their most recent outing, which snapped a four match losing streak.

While the Steelers would need to win all of their remaining games and hope that Waikato and Auckland lose theirs to reach the knockout stages of the season, coach Tana Umaga has had the chance to expose further players despite a significant injury toll.

Last match: Counties Manukau 25 Southland 7, 11.10.13 in Pukekohe (ITMC RS)

Last Southland win: Southland 22 Counties Manukau 14, 29.07.11 in Rugby Park Stadium (ITMC, RS)

Biggest Counties Manukau score: 85 (85-17), 12.10.97 in Pukekohe (NPC)

Biggest Southland score: 47 (47-10), 06.09.07 in Invercargill (ANZC)

Biggest differential: Counties Manukau by 68 (85-17), 12.10.97 in Pukekohe (NPC)

Key players: The loss of Sopoaga is a blow, but Southland will look for the likes of Willis Halaholo and Cardiff Vaega in the midfield to provide guidance.

However it isn’t unusual for packs to take control of proceedings when a senior member of the backline is missing, and the powerful back row of John Hardie, Tim Boys and Elliot Dixon will work alongside a tight five that got on top of Canterbury last week.

Ahsee Tuala and Augustine Pulu have been increasingly influential in recent matches for Counties, while the backline has begun to really hum, with Tim Nanai-Williams and Bundee Aki firing against the red and blacks, just ahead of the inclusion of a certain Sonny Bill Williams.

Up front Jordan Taufua has been among the signings of the season, while Jimmy Tupou and Pauliasi Manu have been making big contributions to a Counties pack that will need to be on form against a Stags team that relishes the tight battles.