Preview: Auckland v Taranaki

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Sunday, August 23, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Form: Auckland last week had to fight hard against Southland to record a 23-23 draw, it was a match that the Stags might have felt aggrieved when reviewing post match - they had their chances to bag four competition points and in effect allowed the visitors back into the game during the late stages.

Once again on paper the most decorated team in New Zealand provincial rugby look strong, but while they dominate the head to head and scored 50 points against the Amber and Blacks two years ago, Taranaki has every right to feel as if they can win consecutive games against Auckland after posting 49 points last year against their Northern rivals.

The 2014 ITM Cup Premiership champions came up against a Wellington backlash last week, and while a first up loss against a ‘Championship division’ side isn’t ideal, it wasn’t as if the Taranaki Bulls were blown off the park.

If it wasn’t for the Lions Joe Hill late score, the Amber and Blacks might have actually had the win, so expect head coach Colin Cooper to insist that there are no repeat late lapses in concentration.

Sunday 23 August, 2.35pm at Eden Park, Auckland
Played: 121, 1887-2014
Taranaki wins: 31 | Auckland wins: 83 | Draws: 7

Last match: Taranaki 49 Auckland 30, 18.10.14 in New Plymouth (ITMC SF)
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)

Squad update: All Black Charles Piutau will start on the wing for Auckland this weekend in their first home match of the ITM Cup season against defending champions, Taranaki.

Piutau’s inclusion is one of six changes to the starting lineup, including the return from injury by Simon Hickey, who is set captain the team. Mitchell Karpik will make his Auckland debut, replacing the injured Blake Gibson.

The remaining changes see locks William Lloyd and Liaki Moli and fullback Lolagi Visinia all start on Sunday.

Tom McHugh, Jono Owen, Matt Matich and Rieko Ioane are all set to make their debuts off the bench.

For Taranaki the return of the 2014 ITM Cup Player of the Year is a major boost, Seta Tamanivalu makes his return from a knee injury and is part of several changes to the team.

Mithcel Brown, Sione Lea and Toa Halafihi come into the starting XV, while Kylem O’Donnell, Lachlan Boshier and Jared Proffit are called into the reserve contingent.

Is a sign that Cooper was not overly impressed with some players efforts, some big names are out of the side, notably James Broadhurst, Rhy Marshall and Iopu Iopu-Aso.

The backline of the tourists remains unchanged.

Key players: The return of Piutau, even if only temporarily, will be a big boost for Auckland, as the strike runner has been one of the most impressive performers at All Blacks level and expect a bit of fireworks from the impressive wing.

Ben Lam, George Moala and others have a chance to showcase their wares against Taranaki after they struggled to find space against Southland, while the Hickey brothers Simon and Jono combine in the playing axis – Auckland need their young generals to start dictating terms.

Akira Ioane, recently named in Sir Gordon Tietjens 2015/16 All Blacks Sevens outfit, will look to create his unique blend of havoc running from eight, but the tight five, who had to take repeated backward steps against the Stags, will hope for a better display in front of their home crowd.

Marty McKenzie will again lead Taranaki’s back division, and captain James Marshall and Maori All Blacks skipper Charlie Ngatai will need to be on song, Wellington found a few too many holes last outing and the Premiership champs need to ensure their wide defences are shored up if the dream of back-to-back titles is to be a reality.

Blade Thomson and Berny Hall were a couple of forwards that walked away from the loss against the Lions with their heads held high, but the relentless attitude of the Naki pack that was a feature of their winning campaign in 2014 will need to be prevalent at Eden Park.