Preview: Southland v Wellington

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Friday, September 4, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Form: The Stags have come off playing three games in eight days, winning against Northland 27-18 before losing back-to-back matches.

A 10-26 loss against Bay of Plenty in Tauranga would have hurt, but not as much as their one point loss to North Harbour at home last weekend, Daniel Halangahu’s 80th minute penalty ensured that Harbour left Invercargill with a 26-25 success.

If they are to avoid their third straight loss and dodge dropping out of the ITM Cup Championship top four, they will need to win against a Wellington team they haven’t defeated since 2002.

The tourists meanwhile are baring their claws in a big way, they have scored three straight victories to commence their season, scoring 13 tries while conceding just the one.

Their 19-14 victory over Taranaki to open their 2015 campaign has been followed with 43-0 and 29-0 wins over North Harbour and Northland to maintain their grip on the Championship table.

Saturday 5 September, 5.35pm at Rugby Park, Invercargill
Played: 92, 1896-2012
Southland wins: 23 | Wellington wins: 62 | Draws: 7

Last match: Wellington 40 Southland 8, 02.09.12 in Wellington (ITMC)
Last Southland win: Southland 22 Wellington 20, 24.08.02 in Invercargill (NPC)
Biggest Wellington score: 61 (61-3), 26.09.99 in Wellington (NPC)
Biggest Southland score: 37 (37-23), 23.09.36 in Invercargill
Biggest differential: Wellington by 60 (60-0), 03.09.10 in Wellington (ITMC)

Squad update: Before the match has even commenced Southland will start on the back foot, All Blacks first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga has been ruled out of action with a slight hamstring injury.

Junior Ngaluafe will instead start at fullback, with Sopoaga on track to return to action against Waikato in Hamilton next weekend.

Centre Kieran Moffat will return to start against Wellington after missing last week with concussion, replacing James Schrader who drops to the bench.

Scott Eade also returns to the starting XV at halfback while Liam Howley and Scott Cowan have been bracketed on the replacements bench.

The forward pack which started against North Harbour remains unchanged, with the home team being given the chance to make amends for their late loss against one of the form packs of the ITM Cup.

Lock Jeremy Thrush is the only new inclusion in the Wellington Lions starting line-up to take on the Stags.

Thrush returns from an ankle injury to partner with Hoani Matenga in the locks, while Vaea Fifita shifts back to blindside flanker and captain, Brad Shields, to number eight.

Poneke’s Greg Foe comes back onto the bench in one of four changes, alongside halfback Tomasi Palu, hooker Hunter Prescott, and outside back Tomasi Alosio. Prescott takes the place of an injured James O'Reilly (hamstring), while Alosio comes in for Marvin Karawana, who remains on concussion watch after being injured in the Lions’ match against Northland last weekend.

Key players: If Southland is to win over one of the form teams of the 2015 season, then their pack will need to atone for their late loss to Harbour.

Jamie Mackintosh, Guy Millar and Joel Everson will need to start the proceedings from the front, Wellington’s forwards have been impressive but it is not a focal point of their game so the Stags might be able to target this area.

Ash Moeke needs to step up in a very big way without the support of Sopoaga, one area where the home team has looked vulnerable has been their ability to control a game, they cannot afford any late lapses against an opponent of Wellington’s quality.

Brad Shields has led an in form forward unit with his usual ‘charge from the front’ style, but he has been helped by a belligerent tight five, Jeff To’omaga-Allen and Leni Apisai have been towering figures in the tight exchanges.

In the open spaces Jonny Bentley has been a star performer at 10 for the Lions, but the Wellington backs need to give plenty of credit to a bunch of forwards that have given them an arm chair ride over their opening three matches.

Cory Jane will put aside the disappointment of missing the All Blacks Rugby World Cup squad behind him knowing he is one of the Lions key weapons out wide, his class has been notable of late alongside the steadiness of Shaun Treeby and Joe Hill.