Preview: Otago v Southland

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Friday, September 25, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Form: Otago may have only two wins to their credit so far this season but they are significant scalps, with the blue and golds defeating Taranaki 34-27 in New Plymouth during the third round, which was followed up with a rollicking win in Wellington last weekend, 37-36 over the previously unbeaten Lions.

Their four losses, the most recent being a 29-35 reverse against Auckland, have been competitive defeats but head coach Cory Brown knows that time is running out if they are to contest the semi-finals.

Otago has been dominant in the rivalry recently, winning 33-22 last year while they have claimed 145 of the 237 games played between the sides in what is the longest running provincial rivalry in New Zealand Rugby.

The Stags, also with two victories to their credit this season, have played one extra match and as a consequence have a one competition point lead over their old rivals - they are on 13 overall which places them fourth on the ITM Cup Championship table.

A vital 49-14 win over Manawatu last weekend was all but non-negotiable if they were to keep the finals hopes alive, the home success against the Turbos stopped a run of four straight defeats.

Saturday 26 September, 5.35pm at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Played: 237, 1887-2014
Otago wins: 145 | Southland wins: 82 | Draws: 10

Last match: Otago 33 Southland 22, 30.08.14 in Invercargill (ITMC)
Last Southland win: Southland 38 Otago 32, 28.09.13 in Dunedin (ITMC)
Biggest Otago score: 64 (64-16), 25.08.90 in Invercargill (NPC)
Biggest Southland score: 40 (40-0), 08.08.59 in Invercargill
Biggest differential: Otago by 50 (59-9), 15.08.87 in Dunedin; and Otago by 50 (60-10), 03.10.98 in Dunedin (NPC)

Squad update: Otago will be buoyed by the return of some heavy infantry for this Southern derby at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

Skipper Liam Coltman returns after missing action with a rib injury, while James Lentjes has recovered from a head knock suffered a month ago to take his position at openside flanker.

This results in Adam Knight shifting to the opposite side in the back row while Naulia Dawai is given a start at number eight resulting in Mika Mafi gaining a spot on the replacements bench.

Sio Tomkinson will start for the first time in a blue and gold jersey on the right wing, replacing Jayden Spence, while on the left outside flanks Jack Wilson comes back into the team.

Southland head coach Brad Mooar has named an unchanged team for this clash, with the Stags injury ward clearing out at the right time of the season.

Last weekend against Manawatu, Southland welcomed back Brayden Mitchell, Bill Fukofuka, Lolohea Loco and Tauasosi Tuimavave – and the four returning players retain their position for this round seven blockbuster.

Key players: While traditionally Otago likes to rely on their forward power, of late the side has been vibrant on attack and last round they showcased their growing prowess with ball in hand.

Matt Faddes, well known to fans of the abbreviated game when part of the All Blacks Sevens set up, scored two tries against Wellington and once again will be a factor from outside centre with his scorching pace.

Veteran Peter Breen has been another of the blue and gold who has been finding form lately, he kicked seven from eight against the Lions and his orchestrating of the backline allowed Otago to collect their third offensive bonus point of the season.

Southland are also benefitting from increased contributions from their back division, with the notable control of Lima Sopoaga being a factor – the longer the All Blacks and Highlanders number ten is part of the Stags set up the better the Southerners look.

Captain Jamie MacKintosh has this week spoken about the long rivalry between the teams with bragging rights, table position and the Donald Stuart Memorial Trophy on the cards for the winners.

The big loosehead was part of a demolition job on the Turbos pack last weekend, but fellow front row forwards Brayden Mitchell and Guy Millar will be wary of the threat Otago bring to the set piece area.

Critical for the Stags will be their back row, dynamic over recent weeks.

Elliot Dixon is arguably the best loose forward in the country not wearing a Black jersey while Tim Boys and Bill Fukofuka have been shifting plenty of bodies lately to give their dangerous backline cleaner possession as the 2015 season progresses.