Preview: Counties Manukau v Tasman

Getty Images

Friday, September 25, 2015    Getty Images

Form: Sitting three points ahead of Manawatu on 12 points, Counties Manukau have Waikato and Auckland in their two remaining matches after Saturday's clash. Manawatu, meanwhile, have North Harbour, Taranaki and Wellington to contend with in their next three matches.

What does that mean for Counties? A win here could go a significantly long way to ensuring they remain in the top flight in 2016.

As for Tasman, they will be out for blood following a 19-28 loss to Auckland last week. The final three games will be crucial if they are to go one better than their 2014 season and secure their maiden title.

Not much has gone right for Counties in 2015, but they hit form just when they needed thanks to a hefty 42-17 win over Northland in Whangarei last week.

It was their first victory since their tight 36-35 win over Manawatu to start the season. Since that match, they've had losses to Canterbury (15-20), Hawke's Bay (11-35), Taranaki (10-17), Bay of Plenty (26-37) and North Harbour (20-28). Despite two wins and 12 competition points under their belt in 2015, Counties could temporarily move up a spot with a win on Saturday at the expense of Waikato (15 points).

Tasman, meanwhile, have plenty of cause for optimism despite their first loss of the season last week. Their nine-point loss to Auckland ended a six-game winning streak. That six-game winning run included wins over Waikato (20-35), Bay of Plenty (34-13), Manawatu (41-21), Otago (34-17),

Wellington (36-17) and North Harbour (39-20). Their average margin of victory is an impressive 18.5 points, and they'll go a long way to consolidating their spot in the Premiership playoffs with victory on Saturday.

Saturday 26 September, 2.35pm at ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe
Played: 6, 2009-2014
Counties Manukau wins: 3 | Tasman wins: 3

Last match: Counties Manukau 21 Tasman 16, 08.10.14 in Blenheim (ITMC)
Last Tasman win: Tasman 40 Counties Manukau 20, 30.08.13 in Pukekohe (ITMC)
Biggest Counties Manukau score: 32 (32-23), 24.07.11 in Blenheim (ITMC)
Biggest Tasman score: 51 (51-15), 16.08.09 in Nelson (ANZC)
Biggest differential: Tasman by 36 (51-15), 16.08.09 in Nelson (ANZC)

Squad Update: Counties' backline has been given a shuffle by coach Tana Umaga. Cardiff Vaega has been shifted to second five-eighths to accommodate Sione Fifita on the left wing, while Sam Vaka starts at centre.

Jarrod Firth returns from a leg injury, while Jordan Taufua returns from suspension to share the captain's armband with Jimmy Tupou. There hasn't been any confirmation around the return of Augustine Pulu from arm surgery.

For Tasman, Kade Poki and Viliami Lolohea return on the wings. Debutant Kane Hames finally gets his chance for the province after breaking a finger at the start of the season, while pivotal No.8 Liam Squire has been slapped with a one match ban for using his shoulder in a ruck against Auckland last week.

Kieron Fonotia also returns from injury to line up at centre.

Key Players: Sam Henwood has shown plenty of promise at flanker for Counties Manukau in his last two matches, illustrating his ball-running skills in a 20-28 loss to North Harbour a fortnight ago.

Taufua was instrumental in the Steelers' big win over Northland last week and will be desperate to show his ability to lead from the front with his bruising forward pack.

Tasman receives its first centurion this weekend, with Robbie Malneek playing in his 100th match for the province on Saturday.