Preview: Counties Manukau v Auckland

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014    Lynn McConnell    Getty Images

Wednesday, October 7, 7.35pm, ECOlight Stadium, PukekohePlayed: 56 (1956-2013) Counties: Won 11, Auckland Won 44, Drawn 1

Squad Update: Counties Manukau will be missing Onosa'I Auva'a due to the eye injury he sustained against Southland and is replaced at openside flanker by Dan Hyatt. Toni Pulu also suffered an injury against Southland and he has been replaced on the wing by Andy Muirhead. Sonny Bill Williams has been included in the reserves.

Auckland captain Tom McCartney and lock Liaki Moli should be back from injury while in the midfield Hadleigh Parkes and Francis Saili will be paired for the first time since the second round of the competition.

Form: Auckland have been strong finishers this year, something that hasn't always been to their advantage in the past. Their last outing against Waikato was a memorable effort, although it will take similar intensity to put one over Counties Manukau if Auckland are to secure a semi-final berth. 
Counties Manukau are probably still wondering quite how they managed to beat Southland so convincingly in their last outing and they know they must not concede Auckland the type of opportunities that Southland were unable to utilise in Invercargill at the weekend.

Key Players: Captain Augustine Pulu has plenty riding on this game which could be his transport into an All Blacks call-up. He has been in great form for the side and continues to set a great example. But as has been seen many times this year, the Counties Manukau backline is extremely dangerous with key performers in wing Frank Halai and fullback Tim Nanai-Williams.

Where the pressure will be on is in the tight and prop Pauliasi Manu has a big leadership role to play in attempting to wipe out the advantage in experience that the Auckland side enjoy.

Auckland's loose trio of Peter Saili, Sean Polwart and Joe Edwards were highly impressive against Waikato and if they can produce similar results against the Steelers they will be well on the way to success. However, their ability to perform at maximum will be dependent on a solid performance by the front five where lock Patrick Tuipulotu will be seeking a good performance to get back into All Blacks reckoning.

Gareth Anscombe is such a key performer for Auckland and as his time with the side winds down he has every incentive to go all the way with the side to end on the highest possible note. Francis Saili's return will also be welcomed and should be a useful edge on the outsides.