Auckland need to defeat Waikato on Saturday and hope other results to go their way if they are to feature in this year's final.
Auckland need to defeat Waikato and hope other results to go their way if they are to feature in this year's ITM Cup final.
Saturday's final round robin match in Hamilton acts as a repeat of last year's semi-final between the two sides – albeit at a different venue – when Waikato pipped Auckland at the death.
Whilst there are no semi-finals in this year's revamped and shortened competition due to the Rugby World Cup, this weekend's clash is as close to a knock-out match we'll get.
A win for second-placed Waikato (28 points) will guarantee them a second successive final, while fifth-placed Auckland (25 points) must bag a win – preferably a bonus-point victory – and hope that Canterbury, Taranaki and Bay of Plenty lose their matches to Otago, Hawke's Bay and Southland respectively.
“Nothing's changed in terms of our preparation, we've got to go to Waikato and we've got to win,” said Auckland head coach Mark Anscombe.
“They edged us out in the 82nd or 83rd minute twice last year so that holds bad memories but we've had good encounters with them over the years and that's the rivalry between the two Unions and I see Saturday being no different.
“They'll be looking at where they sit on the table and they'll realise that a win against us guarantees them a final so both teams have an incentive and will want to get the result.”
In team news, Anscombe has made just two injury enforced changes to his starting line-up. Both locks Chris Lowrey and Liaki Moli were injured during last week's 25-16 victory over Bay of Plenty and have been replaced by Josh Katene and Steven Luatua.
Lowrey sustained an elbow fracture which will keen him sidelined for between four to six weeks.
On the bench, Nathan Vella comes in for Ash Dixon who has a grade two medial ligament strain, while Richard Haddon provides locking cover and Ben Masoe replaces San Henwood.
Meanwhile, Liam Messam comes in at blindside flanker for Waikato after missing out on selection for the All Blacks' World Cup squad.
Messam replaces Matt Vant Leven in one of three changes to the Mooloo Men's starting XV.
The others see Stephen Donald return from his upper leg injury to replace Sam Christie at fly-half and skipper Nathan White get his starting tighthead prop spot back in place of Ben May.
Vant Leven, Christie and May all go to the bench where they are joined by winger Declan O'Donnell, who returns from a groin injury.
Waikato: Trent Renata, Henry Speight, Save Tokula, Jackson Willison, Tim Mikkelson, Stephen Donald, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Alex Bradley, Marty Holah, Liam Messam, Romana Graham, Toby Lynn, Nathan White (c), Marcel Cummings-Toone, Toby Smith.
Replacements: Vance Elliott, Ben May, Matt Vant Leven, Zak Hohneck, Brendon Leonard, Sam Christie, Declan O'Donnell, Ted Tauroa.
Auckland: Dave Thomas, Joe Rokocoko, Hadleigh Parkes, Winston Stanley, George Moala, Gareth Anscombe, Alby Mathewson, Peter Saili, Sean Polwart, Nathan Hughes, Steven Luatua, Josh Katene, Charlie Faumuina, Tom McCartney (c), Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: Nathan Vella, Angus Ta'avao, Richard Haddon, Ben Masoe, Toby Morland, Piers Francis, Brent Ward, Tevita Mailau.