Preview: Taranaki v Auckland

Date published: October 17 2014

Tabletoppers Taranaki host Auckland in what promises to be an entertaining ITM Cup semi-final in New Plymouth on Saturday.

Tabletoppers Taranaki host Auckland in what promises to be an entertaining ITM Cup semi-final in New Plymouth on Saturday.

While these sides head into this clash after experiencing contrasting results in matches played last weekend, Taranaki are firm favourites to reach their first Premiership final as they have already beaten Auckland twice this season.

The Amber and Blacks won a friendly before the start of the tournament and claimed a 35-22 victory in New Plymouth three weeks ago.

The home side have been the most consistent side in the tournament and have impressed under the guidance of experienced coach Colin Cooper.

Amongst their backs, players like fly-half Marty McKenzie, midfielder Seta Tamanivalu and wing Waisake Naholo have impressed with their attacking ability throughout the season while captain and utility back James Marshall and experienced centre Charlie Ngatai have provided a steadying influence.

Up front, the charge has been led by impressive number eight Blade Thomson, experienced lock James Broadhurst, former Auckland front-row Angus Ta’avao and new All Black hooker Rhys Marshall.

Despite finishing at the top of the league standings, the Amber and Blacks suffered a 26-23 loss to Canterbury last weekend. They were dominant for three quarters of that game but a late fightback secured an unlikely victory for the defending champions.

Auckland have had an up and down season but finished off their league campaign in style with an impressive 38-10 triumph over Northland.

They notched a try-scoring bonus-point in that game which secured them their place in the play-offs and will be brimming with confidence after that result.

In team news, Taranaki midfielder Charlie Ngatai has been declared fit after ovecoming a rib injury sustained in last weekend’s loss to Canterbury.

In the forwards, openside flanker Berny Hall returns to the starting line-up after missing two matches due to concussion. His elevation to the run-on side sees Iopu Iopu-Aso moving to the bench, while Mitchell Crosswell moves to the blindside flank.

Meanwhile, Auckland have been boosted by the return of from injury of left wing George Moala and number eight Peter Saili who take their place in the starting XV.

Auckland coach Paul Feeney highlighted the duo’s importance to the team’s cause.

“It’s good to have Peter and George back, they are key parts of our team and have both been in good form.”

Both sat out Saturday’s match against Northland with concussion but are cleared for this weekend, along with Polwart who has recovered from illness.

Auckland finished the regular season with three matches in ten days, but Feeney said they are ready for the play-offs.

“We came in on Monday and didn’t do too much, just a review and then focussed on Taranaki,” he added.

“There hasn’t been much physical stuff this week so their bodies are well rested and ready to go.”

Auckland have travelled to New Plymouth twice this year, once in pre-season and the second just weeks ago, neither bringing positive outcomes.

“We know we can mix it with Taranaki. We can match it with any side when we are playing to our capabilities.

“The start will be important on Saturday. The key is going to be up front with the set piece and physicality.”

Ones to watch:

For Taranaki: While Taranaki have plenty of game-breakers a grafter like former Auckland prop Angus Ta’avao has impressed in his first season for the Amber and Blacks. A solid scrummager and adept ball-carrier, Ta’avao will be highly motivated to get the better of his former team-mates.

For Auckland: The goal-kicking of fly-half Gareth Anscombe has played a big part in helping Auckland to the play-offs. Anscombe is one of the most accurate goal-kickers in New Zealand and if Taranaki’s discipline lets them down, he will make them pay. The former New Zealand U20 player is heading to Wales at the end of the ITM Cup and will be determined to postpone his departure by helping Auckland reach the final.

Head-to-head: The back row will battle be intense as both sides have quality players in this department. The performances of the number eights will be particularly important and both Taranaki’s Blade Thomson and Auckland’s Peter Saili are set to play significant roles in implementing their respective teams’ game-plans. Thomson has been in fine form throughout the campaign and his superb play has coincided with Taranaki’s rise to the top of the table during the league phase of the tournament. He links well with his backs, defends well and is also a handy option at the back of the line-out. Saili’s main strength is his ball-carrying ability. Once he builds up a head of steam he’s difficult to stop and he will try to put his side on to the front-foot with his powerful surges off the base of the scrum. Also a solid defender who has the ability to put in some massive hits.

Prediction: Taranaki have been the more consistent side this year and should be too strong in front of their home crowd. Taranaki to win by six points!

The teams:

Taranaki: 15 James Marshall (c), 14 Codey Rei, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Marty McKenzie, 9 Chris Smylie, 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Berny Hall, 6 Mitchell Croswell, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Riki Hoeata, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Mitchell Graham.
Replacements: 16 Sione Lea, 17 Ryan Cocker, 18 Mitchell Brown, 19 Iopu Iopu-Aso, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Jackson Ormond, 22 Kurt Baker.

Auckland: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Hadleigh Parkes, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 George Moala, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Leon Fukofuka, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Sean Polwart, 6 Blake Gibson, 5 Liaki Moli, 4 Jack Whetton, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Sam Prattley.
Replacements: 16 Gafatasi Su’a, 17 Nic Barrett, 18 Scott Scrafton, 19 Nepia Fox-Matamua, 20 Junior Poluleuligaga, 21 Francis Saili, 22 Simon Hickey.

Date: Saturday, October 18
Kick-off: 16:35 local (05:35 BST)
Venue: Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant referees: Kane McBride, Damian Botherway
Television match official: Aaron Paterson