Preview: Manawatu v North Harbour

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Friday, September 25, 2015    Getty Images

Form: Despite having two matches remaining following this round, the enormity of Saturday's game couldn't be more obvious for Manawatu. With tough matches against Taranaki and Wellington to follow, Saturday's game is a do or die encounter.

North Harbour may well fancy themselves against their remaining opposition, Otago and Northland, but a win on Saturday eases the pressure and allows the province to keep the heat on the other teams in contention.

With one win in seven matches, Manawatu has had a season to forget. Their 42-17 win over Northland aside, the hosts have been made to look very ordinary throughout the competition. Following a 35-36 loss to Counties Manukau, the Premiership side were pipped by Waikato 21-28, before blowout 21-41, 7-57 and 28-45 losses to Tasman, Canterbury and Auckland respectively.

To their credit, they defeated Northland following a four day turnaround, but were woeful in their 14-49 loss to Southland in Invercargill last week. Interestingly, Manawatu are the only side yet to score a penalty in 2015.

North Harbour, meanwhile, will go into this match with confidence having kept Canterbury honest with a 20-27 loss at QBE Stadium last week. It continued a patchy season for the visitors that has included a 28-20 win over Premiership side Counties and a 32-48 loss to Hawke's Bay in its Ranfurly Shield challenge.

Saturday 26 September, 7.35pm at Arena Manawatu, Palmerston North
Played: 16, 1986-2014
Manawatu wins: 4 | North Harbour wins: 12

Last match: North Harbour 24 Manawatu 13, 12.09.14 in Albany (ITMC)
Last Manawatu win: Manawatu 15 North Harbour 12, 08.09.13 in Palmerston North (ITMC)
Biggest Manawatu score: 32 (32-21), 02.08.11 in Palmerston North (ITMC)
Biggest North Harbour score: 63 (63-4), 13.08.88 in Takapuna (NPC)
Biggest differential: North Harbour by 59 (63-4), 13.08.88 in Takapuna (NPC)

Squad Update: The Manawatu team was not named at the time of publication, but the absence of Semisi Masirewa will be a big blow for the hosts. The star fullback, who was arguably one of the form players of the competition, limped off within six minutes of Manawatu's 14-49 loss to Southland last week.

His likely replacement is Newton Tudreu, who did an admirable job as his side fell to an historic loss.

For North Harbour, the injury to former NSW Waratah Daniel Halangahu sees Matt McGahan retain the No.10 jersey. That results in Josh Rowland being elevated to the starting line-up at fullback, while centre Matt Vaega is benched in favour of Pita Ahki.

Key Players: The match has a number of key encounters, the most interesting of which is the battle between the two first five-eighths. Otere Black has struggled so far in 2015 and an early penalty will not only settle his side's nerves but give the young No.10 some much-needed confidence.

His opposite, Matt McGahan, has had similar struggles with the kicking tee and his disappointing kicking game will have fans nervous.

The former New Zealand under-20 representative needs to improve and capitalise on attacking weapons Tevita Li, Nafi Tuitavake and Ahki if they're to have any chance of victory on Saturday.