Preview: Counties Manukau v Manawatu

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Friday, August 14, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Form: The Steelers second year in the ITM Cup Premiership was a bit frustrating considering their feats of the previous season, where the 2012 Championship winners reached the Semi-Finals and claimed the Ranfurly Shield.

Alas last season, despite showing further growth, especially defensively with a competition best 192 points conceded during the regular season, they lost the Log o’Wood and were swept aside as Taranaki and Tasman’s fairy tale seasons saw the balance of power shift yet again in New Zealand domestic rugby.

Still, Counties class was obviously as only two competition points separated them from Semi-Finalists Auckland, and three strong wins to close the regular season almost saw Tana Umaga’s men qualify for the Premiership finals for the second straight year.

The Turbos have struggled recently by the lofty standards of the competition, but last campaign the green and white machine went up another level.

Ranked fifth in the Championship in 2013, winning four from ten, Manawatu put in a remarkable 2014 season.

Finishing first overall with eight wins – the best record of any ITM Cup union (premiership or championship) last year – the Turbos now play in the Premiership.

Sunday 16 August, 2.35pm at ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe
Played: 32, 1974-2014
Counties Manukau wins: 18 | Manawatu wins: 13 | Draws: 1

Last match: Manawatu 26 Counties Manukau 10, 07.09.14 in Palmerston North (ITMC)
Last Counties Manukau win: Counties Manukau 31 Manawatu 28, 20.09.12 in Pukekohe (ITMC)
Biggest Counties Manukau score: 60 (60-26), 22.08.93 in Pukekohe (NPC)
Biggest Manawatu score: 41 (41-14), 09.08.75 in Palmerston North
Biggest differential: Counties Manukau by 35 (35-0), 09.09.92 in Palmerston North (NPC)

Squad update: The Steelers side features eight players making their ITM Cup debut. Gafatasi Su'a, Mike Lawrenson, Richard Judd, Piers Francis, Sione Fifita and Cardiff Vaega are the new faces in the starting XV.

Nathan de Thierry and Johnny Fa'auli will play their maiden matches for Counties should they come off the bench.

The Turbos team to face Counties will see captain Callum Gibbins play his 50th games, while wingman Newton Tudreu will also notch up a milestone playing in his 20th game.

The first starting line-up of 2015 has good mixture of new and experienced faces with the majority of differences seen in the forward pack. New front rowers Adrian Barone and Michael Alaalatoa will join Turbos centurion Rob Foreman in the front row with Tom Parsons taking a spot in the second row alongside Fraser Stone.

In the loose forwards new recruit Mark Atkins will wear the No. 8 Jersey with Antonio Kiri Kiri getting the nod on the blindside after an outstanding club rugby season and pre-season.

A familiar backline will take to the field with the obvious change at fullback where Semisi Masirewa will start with Nehe Milner-Skudder of course away on All Blacks duty. In the halves Jamie Booth will start and Toby Morland will take a spot on the bench in the place of the injured Kayne Hammington.

Counties: 15 Jared Page, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Sam Vaka, 12 Cardiff Vaega, 11 Sione Fifita, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Richard Judd, 8 Maama Vaipulu, 7 Sam Henwood, 6 Jimmy Tupou (c), 5 Viliame Rarasea, 4 Mike Lawrenson, 3 Jarrod Firth, 2 Gafatasi Su'a, 1 Pauliasi Manu.

Replacements: 16 Michael Lea, 17 Sean Bagshaw, 18 John Tu'ungafasi, 19 Jordan Taufua, 20 Onosai Auva'a, 21 Kane Hancy, 22 Nathan de Thierry, 23 Johnny Fa'auli.

Manawatu: 15 Semisi Masirewa, 14 Newton Tudreu, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Hamish Northcott, 11 Nathan Tudreu, 10 Otere Black, 9 Jamie Booth, 8 Mark Atkins, 7 Callum Gibbins (c), 6 Antonio Kiri Kiri, 5 Tom Parsons, 4 Fraser Stone, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Rob Foreman, 1 Adrian Barone.

Replacements: 16 Nick Grogan, 17 Fraser Armstrong, 18 Tim Cadwallader, 19 Velantino Mapapalangi, 20 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 21 Toby Morland, 22 Jaxon Tagavaitau, 23 Hamiora Thomas.

Key players: Tana Umaga has a young team at his disposal but expect a vibrant pack of forwards led by Jimmy Tupou, while Jarrod Firth and Pauliasi Manu add some experience up front.

But Umaga knows this is a side missing some vital ITM Cup experience, so is hoping that the team can hit the ground running in front of home support, many of the players selected did the job against Canterbury in their final preseason hit out.

Newly signed Chiefs back Toni Pulu will take his place on the right wing, while the powerful Cardiff Vaega lines up at second five-eighth. However the inexperience of the back division is obvious, so playmakers Piers Francis and Richard Judd will look to get their combinations fluent quickly if they are to take an opening win.

The Turbos, playing their first game in the top flight in 2015, have selected an impressive looking team that will have the Steelers on his alert, Manawatu’s backline in particular appears to be very dangerous.

Gibbins leads from openside flanker, while there is no-nonsense support in the tight five in the form of Rob Foreman and Fraser Stone and hooker and lock respectively.

Out wide Jamie Booth and Otere Black link up in what is a dynamic looking halves axis, while the Tudreu brothers Newton and Nathan will play on the left and right wings.