Preview: Wellington v Otago

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015    Getty Images

Bragging rights aside, the hosts have it all to play for at Westpac Stadium on Thursday night as they seek to maintain their position in the top-two of the ITM Cup Championship.

Otago, however, have their own motivations. Despite claiming one win in five games so far this season, the southerners are three points adrift of fourth place in the Championship. Aside from ending a three-game losing streak to Wellington, a win would help Otago get back on track after a hard-fought 29-35 loss to Premiership contenders Auckland last week.

Having conceded just 4.25 points per game leading up to their game against Tasman, Wellington were running hot, albeit against mostly inferior sides. Having overcome Taranaki 19-14, Wellington's defensive line was barely tested with routs against unfancied North Harbour (43-0), Northland (29-0) and Southland (53-3). However, the floodgates opened in the second half of their match against Tasman, conceding 30 points and four tries to illustrate the gulf in class between the improving Wellington and the measured Makos. While Wellington conceded a whopping 31 turnovers against Tasman, including 12 at the breakdown, Earl Va'a's men.

Otago also secured a win over the defending champions, a 34-27 win in New Plymouth in Week 3 - their sole win of their 2015 campaign. While outclassed by Canterbury (24-38), Hawke's Bay (22-39), Tasman (17-34), Otago can take heart from their six-point defeat to Auckland at Eden Park. While Otago's defensive line has been anything but golden – conceding an average of over 33 points per game – their attacking intensity is also less than ordinary. After five games, Otago rank the lowest for defenders beaten (74), second-lowest in carries and fourth-lowest in metres. When Otago do hold on to the ball, however, they don't often lose it and are the second-most efficient side when it comes to turnovers won and lost (+11 compared to Tasman's +26).

Played: 112

Wins: Wellington 64, Otago 39

Draws: 9

Last match: Wellington 49-22 Otago, Dunedin 2012

WELLINGTON LIONS: 1.Reggie Goodes, 2.Leni Apisai, 3.Jeffery To’omaga-Allen, 4.Jeremy Thrush, 5.Hoani Matenga, 6.Vaea Fifita , 7.Ardie Savea , 8.Brad Shields (captain), 9.Frae Wilson, 10.Jonny Bentley , 11.Wes Goosen, 12.Marvin Karawana, 13.Tomasi Alosio, 14.Jason Woodward, 15.Cory Jane.

Reserves: 16.James O'Reilly, 17.Finnbarr Kerr-Newell, 18.Joe Apikotoa, 19.Adam Hill, 20.Greg Foe, 21.Tomasi Palu, 22.Jackson Garden-Bachop, 23.Malo Tuitama.

OTAGO: 1.Aki Seiuli, 2.Sekonaia Pole, 3.Donald Brighthouse, 4.Blair Tweed, 5.Josh Dickson, 6.Naulia Dawai, 7.Adam Knight, 8.Mika Mafi, 9.Josh Renton, 10.Peter Breen, 11.Tony Ensor, 12.Teihorangi Walden (captain), 13.Matt Faddes, 14.Jayden Spence, 15.Michael Collins.

Reserves: 16.Sam Sturgess, 17.Craig Millar, 18.Hisa Sasagi, 19.Tom Franklin, 20.Dillon Hunt, 21.Kaide Whiting, 22.Fletcher Smith, 23.Jack Wilson.

Squad Update: Wellington's dynamic attack was given another boost, with confirmation of Jason Woodward's return to action from an ankle injury. He starts for the hosts on the right wing while Cory Jane returns to fullback after overcoming a hip knock. Malo Tuitama could make his debut for the province from the bench after recovering from an Achilles injury.

There was also confirmation during the week that star second five-eighths Shaun Treeby is out for the season after breaking his leg against Tasman, while centre Matt Proctor is expected to return to action in the coming weeks after damaging his ribs against Southland.

Otago's backline and front row gets a makeover as part of eight changes to the side that narrowly lost to Auckland on Sunday. Michael Collins' switch to fullback has seen Tony Ensor move to the left wing. Sokanaia Pole starts in his debut match at hooker, while Aki Seiuli and Donald Brighthouse get their maiden starts.

Otago suffered more injury worries when wing Gavin Stark was injured at training. He joins an injury ward already stretched, with captain Liam Coltman (ribs), Sam Anderson-Heather (ankle) and Craig Millar.

Key Players: Vaea Fifita's athletic ability has seen him gather many admirers already this season. His four tries have illustrated his agility and physicality and Wellington will need all of his attributed if they are to squeeze Otago out of the game. Jonny Bentley's stirling season took a hit against Tasman, but his response – and the quality of ball from halfback Frae Wilson – should go some way to ensuring he maintains his spot in the No.10 jersey. Brad Shields gets another chance to lead from the front and should illustrate his physicality once more at the breakdown and with ball in hand.

Flanker Naulia Dawai carved his name into the history books last week for Otago. He joined Sitiveni Sivivatu (5 tries, 2004), Joeli Vidiri (4, 1998), and Dean Magon (3, 1996) as players to have scored a hat-trick against Auckland. He was the first to do so in over 10 years and the second player to have done so on the hallowed Eden Park. His impact at the breakdown, however, will be just as important as his tryscoring abilities. Peter Breen also shapes as a key player for Otago, getting his first crack at first five-eighths for the season while his third captain in three weeks, Teihurangi Walden, watches on from second five-eighths.