Preview: Counties Manukau v Bay of Plenty

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Saturday, September 5, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Form: It has been a tough opening to the season for the Steelers so far, winning just one of four matches while this fixture will be their third contest in just ten days.

The win/loss column however does not tell the whole story, they had to survive a scare against Manawatu in their opening round and while they were comprehensively beaten by Hawke’s Bay, they competed well against Canterbury and Taranaki, collecting two losing bonus points in the process.

Their second match this season against a Championship side will not be easy, the two team’s rivalry since 1956 is the closest in New Zealand provincial rugby - the Steelers have won 28 to the Steamers 27 while their last match was a 21-19 nail biter won by Counties.

Bay of Plenty on the other hand have been something of a chameleon, winning two and losing two in contrasting circumstances.

Tasman and Waikato inflicted very heavy defeats on the young Steamers team, but a 20-11 win against North Harbour and a 26-10 victory over Southland showed the side knows how to close out gritty contests.

The real test will be whether they can conquer a major opponent, they have beaten both Championship foes they have come up againt but have not been able to defeat a Premiership rival.

With a relaxing seven-day gap between matches, the Steamers will be fresher than Counties and will be targeting this one, another win and Bay of Plenty’s position in the Championship top four becomes very secure.

Sunday 6 September, 4.35pm at ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe
Played: 56, 1956-2014
Bay of Plenty wins: 27 | Counties Manukau wins: 28 | Draws: 1

Last match: Counties Manukau 21 Bay of Plenty 19, 07.08.14 in Whakatane
Last Bay of Plenty win: Bay of Plenty 20 Counties Manukau 13, 17.07.11 in Pukekohe (ITMC)
Biggest Bay of Plenty score: 52 (52-21) 23.06.04 in Mount Maunganui (NPC)
Biggest Counties Manukau score: 47 (47-8) 27.07.94 in Tauranga (NPC)
Biggest differential: Bay of Plenty by 42 (45-3) 09.08.08 in Rotorua (ANZC)

Squad update: Jarrod Firth comes back into the front row and Viliame Rarasea will start at lock as head coach Tana Umaga has made numerous changes to his match day squad. 

Jimmy Tupou moves back to the blindside and Kane Hancy will be the starting halfback. Nathan de Thierry will play first five-eighth with former Warriors U20's player Ngataua Hukatai making his debut on the wing and Cardiff Vaega comes back at second five-eighth.

Sam Aiono, Richard Judd and Johnny Fa'auli move to the bench and are joined by veteran first five-eighth, former Super Rugby and Maori's player Willie Walker who has come in as injury cover.

Steamers head coach Clayton McMillan has also shuffled his starting line up, with Shahn Eru receiving his first start for Bay of Plenty at lock.

The bulk of the alterations are out wide, with one of the squad best performers, Chase Tiatia, shifting from left wing to fullback, resulting in Elijah Nicolas gaining promotion to the starting XV, while Caleb Hall returns at second five-eighth.

Key players: The Counties forwards have been laying the majority of the platform with aplomb so far this season, they were not overawed when playing against Canterbury’s marquee pack and for long stages of the game looked to have the better of Taranaki’s big men.

The back row of captain Jimmy Tupou, Jordan Taufua and Maama Vaipulu will need to have a major outcome on this one, the game plan of this team thrives on quick ball so if the home team’s forwards get on top it could be the winning of the match.

Out wide it is an inexperienced but exciting back division, Kane Hancy will look to strike up an immediate partnership with halves partner Nathan de Theirry while new faces like Ngataua Hukutai will be keen to impress.

Last weekend against Waikato the Bay of Plenty pack didn’t fire a single broadside, the Mooloo moved the Steamers around the field with precision and the home team’s forwards looked outclassed on their home track.

Carl Axtens and Culum Retallick will not want a repeat this weekend if Bay of Plenty is to challenge for the ITM Cup Championship title.

Fellow forwards Nathan Harris, Solomona Sakalia and Johan Bardoul are far better players than we saw during their 10-43 loss to Waikato and they will look at the Counties forwards and believe they may be able to target them in certain areas.

The backs look solid even if some of the faces are not familiar to fans of the ITM Cup, but Whaimotu Craft Chemis and Tino Nemani have enough gas to cause issues for the Counties defence, while there is electricity on the bench in the form of Jono Kitto and Te Rangi Fraser.