Preview: Taranaki v Auckland

Getty Images

Saturday, October 18, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Saturday 18 October, 4.35pm at Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth
Played: 120, 1887-2014
Taranaki wins: 28 | Auckland wins: 83 | Draws: 7

Squad update: Maori All Blacks centre Charlie Ngatai has been cleared to play after the centre was heavily tackled by Canterbury defenders last weekend.

Openside flank Berny Hall returns to the team, which results in Mitchell Crossell moving to the blindside, while Mitchell Brown replaces Leighton Price on the pine.

Auckland coach Paul Feeney has named George Moala and Peter Saili, who return from injury to take their place in the starting XV, while Sean Polwart claims the number 7 jersey.

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

Form: Taranaki’s three point loss to Canterbury interrupted a seven match winning streak for coach Colin Cooper and his team, so they head into the finals with a head of steam.

The hosts have won just 28 matches in 120 encounters against Auckland, although they did defeat the blue and whites 35-22 when they last visited New Playmouth.

Auckland have played three games in ten days and scored 116 points over this time so they will back their systems, while since 1887 they have claimed 83 Taranaki scalps in 120 matches. In 2013 they posted a half century on the Amber and Blacks.

Last match: Taranaki 35 Auckland 22, 26.09.14 in New Plymouth (ITMC)

Last Auckland win: Auckland 51 Taranaki 15, 07.09.13 in New Plymouth (ITMC)

Biggest Auckland score: 55 (55–9), 31.08.91 in Auckland (NPC, RS)

Biggest Taranaki score: 42 (42–39), 24.08.96 in Auckland (NPC, RS)

Biggest differential: Auckland by 46 (55–9), 31.08.91 in Auckland (NPC, RS)

Key players: The precision of Taranaki has been driven by the form of a solid pack, with Blade Thomson the influence at the back, while Angus Ta’avao, Rhys Marshall and Mitchell Graham have been one of the best front rows of the ITM Cup.

Marty McKenzie has been in fine touch, while Ngatai’s clearance ensures that Taranaki’s midfield is immense, with the centre partnering with the wickedly in touch Seta Tamanivalu, while Codey Rei keeps his spot despite Kurt Baker’s return.

Auckland’s pack has been more abrasive as the season has progressed, and Saili and Polwart will add more sting to the back row.

Gareth Anscombe has become the tourist’s leading playmaker ahead of Under 20s captain Simon Hickey, while Moala’s inclusion gives added starch to the already strong back division with the midfield of TJ Faiane and Hadleigh Parkes.