Preview: Waikato v Wellington

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Saturday, September 26, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Form: Waikato’s chances of reaching the Premiership top four is hanging by a thread, they would need to win their three remaining matches and collect a couple of bonus points if they are to play finals footy.

Their last two losses go a long way to describing their 2015 campaign.

In round six the Mooloo suffered their heaviest loss of the year with Taranaki dominating them physically with a 41-0 win, highlighting how Waikato have been deficient in some areas up front, yet earlier in round seven they had Canterbury on the ropes until the red and blacks scored 15 points in as many minutes at the end of the match to win 18-17.

Wellington were looking nigh on unstoppable, but then Tasman came to town and handed the Lions a 36-17 defeat at Westpac Stadium.

A week later it was Otago’s turn, who showed to the rugby world how far their attacking prowess has come when taking on Wellington at their own game and walking away from the capital 37-36 winners.

The yellow and blacks are still sitting in a strong position on the table although it is unlikely they will overhaul Hawke’s Bay at the summit of the Championship table – while Bay of Plenty and Otago are breathing down their necks.

What looked like an imminent reintroduction to the Premiership is now tinged with uncertainty, so winning their 37th match in 67 fixtures against Waikato will be of precedence if they are to get things back on track.

Sunday 27 September, 2.35pm at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Played: 67, 1923-2014
Waikato wins: 30 | Wellington wins: 36 | Draws: 1

Last match: Waikato 37 Wellington 25, 16.08.14 in Wellington (ITMC)
Last Wellington win: Wellington 19 Waikato 14, 27.09.13 in Hamilton (ITMC)
Biggest Wellington score: 55 (55-18), 28.09.88 in Wellington (NPC)
Biggest Waikato score: 58 (58-8), 09.08.97 in Wellington (NPC)
Biggest differential: Waikato by 50 (58-8), 09.08.97 in Wellington (NPC)

Squad update: In the forwards Ben Tameifuna will sit out the match for the home side after being handed a one week suspension due to accumulating three temporary suspensions during the season. Atu Moli comes into the run on side with Josh Hohneck moving to tighthead.

There is also a Waikato debut for long-serving Fraser Tech lock Peni Iowane with David Morgan out after a concussion in Wednesday’s game, while James Tucker returns to the side in place of Whetu Douglas who has been rested due to a heavy workload in recent weeks.

The backline remains the same with the only other changes on the bench where prop Joe Walsh and flanker Zane Kapeli return to the match day squad.

Backs Matt Proctor and Joe Hill will make a welcome return to the Wellington Lions this Sunday in Hamilton, as the team strive for their fifth ITM Cup win.

Proctor and Hill resume their usual positions at centre and right wing, respectively, while Tomasi Palu and Greg Foe claim their first starting spots for 2015.

The Lions will be without Cory Jane this weekend after he sustained a slight shoulder injury against Otago last week, with Jason Woodward moving to the back to cover in his absence.

With usual replacement prop Joe Apikotoa away with the Wellington U19 team, the Lions have called in Wellington Development captain Whetu Henry. Henry played for the Lions during the 2011-2012 seasons, and has 10 representative caps.

Key players: During their most recent match Waikato’s forward pack delivered one of the best display in years, the most inexperienced unit in the competition was up against Canterbury, the standard bearers in this area, and they almost came away with a rare victory in Christchurch.

With some fresh legs present, the more experienced big men will be called upon to stand up and be counted. Tighthead Josh Hohneck, hooker Hame Faiva and flanker Adam Burn have over 60 ITM Cup matches between them and that experience will be vital.

Out wide Damian McKenzie will once again be critical, with the young general emerging this season as arguably his provinces most valuable player.

On the other hand Wellington will want to rediscover their belligerence up front, their pack had looked mighty early in the piece but over the last fortnight have been unable to dictate terms.

Leaders like Jeremy Thrush, Jeff To’omaga-Allen and Ardie Savea need to recapture the fire and with the visitors fielding a young pack the tourists will sense an opportunity here.

Yet if the Lions are to win their fifth fixture of 2015, they will be reliant on the faces out wide, the likes of Jonny Bentley and Tomasi Palu have been quiet by their standards in recent rounds and will be keen to add to the 28 tries the team has scored so far.