Preview: Waikato v Auckland

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Friday, September 4, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Form: Waikato’s solid start to the season has seen them win two straight matches away from home, winning in Manawatu and Tauranga to get their 2015 campaign on track after a round one loss to Tasman.

Their 43-10 victory over Bay of Plenty last week showed what the exciting young Mooloo team can do if they retain possession, although one suspects that the blue and whites won’t be as accommodating as the Steamers were defensively.

Auckland might have lost their first match of the season last week, but their 21-27 reverse against an impressive Canterbury showed how well Paul Feeney’s can compete with the best, and they will be confident they can win against their old rivals down the road and record their second win of the campaign.

The real mettle of Auckland was proven over the opening fortnight, drawing 23-23 against Southland before putting together an impressive display to defeat reigning Premiership champions Taranaki 30-24 at Eden Park a fortnight ago.

If the most decorated team in New Zealand provincial rugby can record their 95th win against Waikato it will ensure that they keep pace with the current top Premiership teams Tasman and Canterbury.

Saturday 5 September, 2.35pm at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Played: 138, 1922-2014
Auckland wins: 94 | Waikato wins: 39 | Draws: 5

Last match: Auckland 60 Waikato 19, 02.10.13 in Auckland (ITMC)
Last Waikato win: Waikato 42 Auckland 24, 14.09.13 in Hamilton (ITMC)
Biggest Auckland score: 60 (60-19), 02.10.13 in Auckland (ITMC)
Biggest Waikato score: 59 (59-11), 28.08.04 in Hamilton (NPC)
Biggest differential: Waikato by 48 (59-11), 28.08.04 in Hamilton (NPC)

Squad update: The home team to take on Auckland at Waikato Stadium this Saturday afternoon has been named and features the return of Stephen Donald.

There is just one change to the Waikato starting lineup that beat Bay of Plenty last weekend, with Dylan Collier coming off the bench to start on the wing in place of the injured Joe Webber, making room for Donald on the reserves bench.

The reserves bench also sees the return from injury of props Atu Moli and Josh Hohneck, with uncapped loose forward Mitch Jacobson and outside back Johnathan Malo also included.

For Auckland, Charlie Faumuina has been released from All Blacks duties and is named to start in what will be the team’s first of three matches in nine days.

Also not selected by the All Blacks, Charles Piutau has been named at centre, creating a powerful midfield combination with George Moala.

Ben Lam returns to the starting lineup after a week off while Melani Nanai is promoted to start at fullback.

Liaki Moli will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a broken arm in the Canterbury match.

Key players: This will be an interesting barometer for the Waikato pack, they have done the job in recent weeks without looking overly dominant but they will need to be on their game against a vibrant Auckland forward unit looking better with each passing round.

Whetu Douglas has been prominent in the back row while the tight five has been eye catching after their defeat to the Makos, Ben Tameifuna and Loni Uhila were impressive against Bay of Plenty’s set piece last week and it made a heck of a difference for the team possession wise.

The Mooloo’s real flair in recent rounds has come from their backline, Damian McKenzie is guiding his team around the field well, boosted with some fast service from Brad Weber at halfback and some quality ball from the Waikato pack.

Auckland’s forwards welcome back Faumuina which only enhances the touring side’s potential up front, who have relied on a quick style of forward play – the likes of Akira Ioane and Saint Kentigern College lock Scott Scrafton have stood out early in 2015.

Simon Hickey meanwhile has benefitted from having real strike power to his left and right, Ben Lam and Bryce Heem have been strapping figures on Auckland’s outside flanks while the midfield looks as strong as it has all year this week with the addition of an unwanted World Cup All Black.

Piutau’s partnership with George Moala has the potential to bully the smaller Waikato back division so watch out if Auckland manages to shift the pill to their big ball carriers in open space.