Preview: Southland v Auckland

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Wednesday, August 12, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Form: Southland’s most recent hit out was via Southland Country, defeating an Otago Country selection 17-8 in Gore.

The Stags finished their 2014 ITM Cup season with an 18-23 semi-final loss to Manawatu, while their final regular season game was a 20-20 draw against Hawke’s Bay.

Those matches, against Championship heavyweights, showed how competitive the Stags were throughout the latter stages of last season’s campaign and the Southlanders will be hoping for more of the same in 2015.

Auckland ran riot over North Harbour in their final trial match of the season, defeating North Harbour 48-17, and like their upcoming opponents also reached the finals last year.

Semi-finalists in the Premiership, the most decorated team in New Zealand provincial rugby lost to eventual ITM Cup champions Taranaki 49-30, while their final regular season game was a 38-10 gallop against Northland.

Thursday 13 August, 7.35pm at Rugby Park, Invercargill
Played: 52, 1903-2011 (DNP 2012/13/14)
Auckland wins: 42 | Southland wins: 8 | Draws: 2

Last match: Auckland 39 Southland 26, 03.08.11 in Auckland (ITMC)
Last Southland win: Southland 9 Auckland 6, 23.09.10 in Invercargill (ITMC, RS)
Biggest Southland score: 37 (37-38), 28.08.05 in Auckland (NPC)
Biggest Auckland score: 78 (78-7), 08.09.90 in Auckland (NPC, RS)
Biggest differential: Auckland by 71 (78-7), 08.09.90 in Auckland (NPC, RS)

Squad update: While many haven’t mentioned Southland as a title contender, the warm glow of the Highlanders Investec Super Rugby title still sits over the region, and a strong side should give the hosts every chance of taking the tournament opener.

Outstanding flanker Elliot Dixon starts alongside Tim Boys and Bill Fukofuka in a solid back row, while the tight five looks capable with the likes of Josh Bekhuis and skipper Jamie Mackintosh.

The backline, despite missing Lima Sopoaga to All Blacks duties, looks solid with Ash Moeke the first Southlander to start at number ten this season alongside halfback Scott Eade.

Auckland coach Paul Feeney has named a young side to face Southland on Thursday in the first ITM Cup match of the 2015 season.

11 players will make their Auckland debut, for seven of those players it will also be their first provincial match at this level.

Ofa Tu’ungafasi will captain the side in the absence of Simon Hickey and is looking forward to the opportunity. Tu’ungafasi’s younger brother Isi is set to debut from the bench.

Michael Fatialofa and Calvary Fonoti will run out for the first time in an Auckland jersey but are in familiar territory, both having played for the Stags in previous seasons.

Front Rowers Greg Pleasants-Tate and Jono Owen also debut for Auckland after previous ITM Cup seasons with North Harbour and Counties Manukau respectively.

The team features 10 players who were involved in the 2015 Super Rugby season and four who were members of the World Championship winning New Zealand Under 20s.

Southland: 15 Junior Ngaluafe, 14 Lolohea Loco, 13 Keiran Moffat, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Keanu Kahukura, 10 Ash Moeke, 9 Scott Eade, 8 Bill Fukofuka, 7 Tim Boys, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joel Everson, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Morgan Mitchell, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (c).

Replacements: 16 Dillan Halaholo, 17 Rueben Northover, 18 Guy Millar, 19 Michael Stewart, 20 Alex Taylor, 21 Liam Howley, 22 James Schrader, 23 Sean Conner.

Auckland: 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Vince Aso, 12 George Moala, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Jono Hickey, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Joe Edwards, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Michael Fatialofa, 3 Ofa Tuiungafasi, 2 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 1 Sam Prattley.

Replacements: 16 Jono Owen, 17 Kurt Eklund, 18 Isi Tu’ungafasi, 19 Williams Lloyd, 20 Taleni Seu, 21 was Kaito Shigeno, 22 Calvary Fonoti, 23 Lolagi Visinia.

Key players: Mackintosh will want his forward pack to establish some form of dominance despite the strength of the incoming visitors, and the presence of the talismanic Dixon will go a long way to ensuring this occurs.

Willis Halaholo was one of the go-to men on attack in 2014 and look for that status quo to continue, while Lolohea Loco and Junior Ngaluafe have gas to burn so look for Southland to play an enthusiastic game with such pace out wide.

Auckland have done their hosts few favours selecting an eye catching team, Bryce Heem, George Moala and Ben Lam provide plenty of firepower – man for man the side looks to have one of the stronger backlines in the ITM Cup.

Up front Akira Ioane will be a threat from number eight with his wide ranging running game, while Joe Edwards and Pleasants-Tate provide some experience as the Aucklanders look to kick off their campaign with a vital away victory.