Preview: Hawke’s Bay v North Harbour

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Friday, September 4, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Form: The Magpies are, pardon the pun, flying very high at the moment with three straight wins and a perfect 15 competition points, but Shield clashes are always intense and unpredictable affairs and Hawke’s Bay will be wary of their incoming opponents.

Significant victories against Northland, Otago and Counties were impressive, but Harbour will not be fearful visiting a team they defeated 28-25 in Albany last year.

However Hawke’s Bay’s feats in 2015, this will be their fifth Shield defence of this year’s campaign, prove that they a genuine power and one of the favourites to win the ITM Cup Championship and gain promotion to the top flight.

Harbour meanwhile won their first match of the season with a come from behind one-point victory against Southland in Invercargill.

If the rare triumph in the Deep South is to be a turning point for the perennial strugglers, then winning the Log o’Wood for the second time in their history (the first was in 2006) would be a massive boost to the proud wearers of the Hibiscus.

Saturday 5 September, 7.35pm at McLean Park, Napier
Played: 14, 1986-2014
Hawke's Bay wins: 5 | North Harbour wins: 8 | Draws: 1

Last match: North Harbour 28 Hawke's Bay 25, 27.09.14 in Albany (ITMC)
Last Hawke's Bay win: Hawke's Bay 55 North Harbour 10, 29.09.13 in Napier (ITMC)
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)

Squad update: Hawke’s Bay head coach Craig Philpott has made just two changes to his starting XV, both enforced by factors outside the Magpies control.

Jarvy Aoake replaces Ben Franks at tighthead prop as the All Black is now in Test camp ahead of the Rugby World Cup, while Zac Guildford’s suspension will see Highlanders back Ryan Tongia replace the speedster on the right wing.

Robbie Fruean had been cleared to play but Hawke’s Bay want to give the blockbusting centre another week to ensure that he is at full fitness.

The only other change to the Magpies match day squad will see Mason Emerson come onto the pine to replace Tongia in the back’s replacements.

Harbour coach Steve Jackson, who was part of the Steelers coaching set up a couple of years ago when Counties held the Shield, has made just the solitary change to their team.

Powerful number eight and 18-year-old Hapakuki Moala-Liava’a gets his first ITM Cup start, his presence will be crucial if Harbour are to shore up their defence up the middle of the field.

Although they were successful with some frantic D and no small amount of guts when beating the Stags last week, Hawke’s Bay will cut Harbour to ribbons if the visitors do not ensure that their forwards make the tight corridors a difficult trek.

Key players: One player with a significant amount to prove will be fullback Israel Dagg, who missed out on Rugby World Cup selection although there is a chance that the number 15 will be called up if injuries strike the All Blacks.

The inclusion of Tongia in the back division does little to weaken the side, the new right wing’s power complements the pace of Shannan Chase, while Richard Buckman has been of the quiet achievers of the team defensively.

Up front Brendon O’Connor will play his 100th first class match so expect a big display from the Magpies skipper, while the remainder of the Hawke’s Bay pack cannot afford complacency against a touring forward unit that receives little credit week-to-week.

Harbour’s pack stood up to Southland’s onslaught last weekend, and if the likes of James Parsons, James Doyle and Gerard Tuioti-Mariner can continue to improve they will back themselves against arguably the form eight of the ITM Cup.

Daniel Halangahu, who has been one of Harbour’s best so far this season, will look to continue his blossoming partnership with Bryn Hall – but if the visitors are to make an impact on this one, then dangerous ball runners like Tevita Li and Matt Vaega will need to get their hands on the pill with more regularity.