Preview: North Harbour v Counties Manukau

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Friday, September 11, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Form: North Harbour actually have reason to be buoyant despite sitting sixth overall on the Championship table coming into the first of an ITM Cup Saturday triple header.

They looked very lively against one of the competition's best teams when scoring 32 points in a losing effort against Hawke’s Bay, following on from their dramatic 26-25 victory at Rugby Park Stadium against Southland the previous round.

Their 11-20 round one loss against the Steamers would have hurt as Harbour had their chances to win, while their 43-point blanking at the hands of Wellington was clearly a wake-up call the side has heeded, they are hungrier and more determined a couple of weeks on.

Counties on the other hand, coming off their toughest stretch of the season (based on turnaround), now sit 1-4, with the real threat of ending the round at the bottom of the Premiership table.

Their previous two losses, a 26-37 reverse against Bay of Plenty and a 10-17 loss to Taranaki, showed how tiredness can affect a team but with some week long gaps between games coming up for the Steelers they will need to find some hidden reservoirs of energy.

Counties have not lost to Harbour since September 2009.

Saturday 12 September, 2.35pm at QBE Stadium, North Harbour
Played: 29, 1985-2013
Counties Manukau wins: 13 | North Harbour wins: 14 | Draws: 2

Last match: Counties Manukau 44 North Harbour 14, 22.08.13 in Albany (ITMC)
Last North Harbour win: North Harbour 28 Counties Manukau 19, 25.09.09 in Albany (ANZC)
Biggest Counties Manukau score: 44 (44-14), 22.08.13 in Albany (ITMC)
Biggest North Harbour score: 62 (62-6), 15.09.91 in Pukekohe (NPC)
Biggest differential: North Harbour by 56 (62-6), 15.09.91 in Pukekohe (NPC)

Squad update: Head coach Steve Jackson has kept the faith for the third week in a row.

Harbour become the first team so far in 2015 to make zero changes back-to-back-to-back, ahead of a tough run with a match against Tasman on Wednesday followed by a clash against Canterbury.

Meanwhile the Steelers have made numerous changes ahead of a match Tana Umaga has declared must win territory.

Lock Sikeli Nabou comes into the starting line up with Mike Lawrenson ruled out due to illness and Jordan Taufua will move to No 8 with Maama Vaipulu expected to be out for another week with a minor hand injury.

Richard Judd starts at halfback and Nathan de Thierry has been bracketed with Piers Francis who has to pass one more concussion protocol prior to the match.

Sam Vaka will move to the left wing and Johnny Fa'auli and Cardiff Vaega will join forces in the midfield. Frank Halai returns back into the side on the right wing and Toni Pulu comes back in at fullback.

Key players: Last weekend against the Ranfurly Shield holders Harbour probably gave us the best indication so far of what they can do when the ball heads towards their backline.

Tevita Li is just so lethal on the break while Matt Vaega and Michael Little are beginning to make their presence felt in the midfield which in turn is paying dividends for Daniel Halangahu at first five-eighth.

James Parsons and James Doyle had big games against Hawke’s Bay and will want repeats, and if Chris Vui and Nic Mayhew can get more opportunities at the breakdown then expect more possession for this diamond in the rough team.

Counties meanwhile continue to contend with injuries, Maama Vaipulu and Sione Fifta have been among the Steelers best attackers in 2015 but continue to make their recoveries in the ward.

Jordan Taufua, Jimmy Tupou and Jarrod Firth will want reenergised efforts up front as they have been found wanting against packs towards the business end of matches lately, but Pauliasi Manu and Sikeli Nabou have been eager and will look to up the tempo when their big bodies head towards the ruck.

Counties preference is to play with speed so if the big men start feeding quality possession to Richard Judd and Piers Francis then the ball carriers out wide like Johnny Fa’auli and Cardiff Vaega will receive better opportunities.

They will want to, as the Steelers backline and offence is better than the 13 tries they have scored this season (Harbour have crossed for 8) the lowest of any team in the ITM Cup Premiership.