Preview: Northland v North Harbour

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Friday, October 3, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Friday 3 October, 7.35pm at Toll Stadium, Whangarei
Played: 35, 1985-2013 
North Harbour wins: 24 | Northland wins: 9 | Draw: 2

Squad update: Northland have made five overall changes – four personal and one positional – with Matt Moulds (eye) and Brook Gilmore (concussion) out with injury.

While Ross Wright and Troy Gilbert taking their places at hooker and second five-eighth as replacements, Namatahi Waa and Jack Ram return from the casualty ward to take their places at loosehead and blindside.

Hayden Triggs will captain Harbour due to an ankle injury to regular skipper Bryn Hall. The absence of the first choice halfback is one of three changes to the starting XV for this ITM Cup Championship clash.

Number eight Jimmy Tuivaiti is fully recovered from an ongoing rib injury to take his spot at the back of the scrum for the dynamic Leigh Thompson who moves to the bench – while after a successful return from injury in the 28-25 win against Hawke’s Bay, Nafi Tuitavake makes his way into the starting lineup at the expense of Luke Devcich.

Bryn Hall is replaced by David Bason at halfback. In the reserves either Luke Hamilton or Raniera Takarangi are poised to make their first appearance of the season at halfback, while David Raikuna has recovered from illness to round out the matchday 22.

Form: Northland have a 50 percent winning record but this isn’t a fair reflection after eight games, with the side’s four bonus points allowing them to be well placed in second of the Championship table.

Their last five matches have produced Hawke’s Bay, Otago and Bay of Plenty scalps, while losses against Southland and Taranaki have been close contests.

Harbour, without a win since 2011 against the Taniwha, will be keen to continue a stunning turnaround of form.

The first team to defeat Canterbury with a 29-24 apple cart spiller to open Round Seven, North Harbour backed up those heroics four days later with a 28-25 triumph over Hawke’s Bay last week.

If other results go their way, victory for the tourists could potentially see them jump to fourth on the Championship charts.

Last match: North Harbour 33 Northland 33, 31.08.13 in Albany (ITMC)

Last Northland win: Northland 18 North Harbour 17, 09.09.12 in Whangarei (ITMC)

Last North Harbour win: North Harbour 33 Northland 26, 20.08.11 in Albany (ITMC)

Biggest Northland score: 35 (35-24), 16.09.08 in Albany (ANZC)

Biggest North Harbour score: 56 (56-17), 04.09.05 in Albany (NPC)

Biggest differential: North Harbour by 39 (42-3), 21.09.02 in Whangarei (NPC); and North Harbour by 39 (56-17), 04.09.05 in Albany (NPC)

Key players: The return of Ram adds plenty of real bite to the Taniwha back row, joining the Pryor brothers Kara and Dan – the latter celebrated this week with a new Highlanders contract for the 2015 Investec Super Rugby season.

Dan Hawkins has a big job running a backline that has to combat a Harbour rear division that has found touch at the tight stages of the season, while the new midfield of Troy Gilbert and Warren Dunn will want to keep the form that has seen Northland score a Championship leading (along with the Magpies) 22 tries.

Greg Pleasants Tate, James Parsons, Nic Mayhew, Gerald Tuioti-Mariner and Hayden Triggs form a tight five that has caused some big name forwardunits to struggle.

The loss of the inspirational Hall is a blow, but David Bason will be partnered alongside Matt McGahan at first five-eighth – but out wide Pita Ahki, Tevita Li and Nafi Tuitavake have been eating up some impressive metres and will want to continue.