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Air NZ Cup Preview: Auckland v Manawatu

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Thursday, August 21, 2008    Sportal.co.nz    Getty Images

So one can imagine that the team will hit Auckland full of enthusiasm for the task and, after some good results, not short on self-confidence.

VENUE & TIME: Eden Park, Auckland, Saturday August 23, 14.35 NZT.

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 22 – Auckland 16, Manawatu 6.

LAST TIME: July 29, 2006 (Palmerston North) – Manawatu 10-41 Auckland.

WALKING WOUNDED: Auckland's pride took a hammering at Christchurch last week and, as a result, the team looks vastly different for the Shield match. Bolstered by the return of All Blacks Keven Mealamu, John Afoa and Isaia Toeava – who plays at first-five – as well as the return of Benson Stanley, this Auckland side is by far the best Pat Lam has run out in 2008. Matty James is out of the Manawatu lineup with a knee injury but that probably saved Dave Rennie from telling him he wasn't starting, as Aaron Cruden promises to be the sort of wild card a challenging team needs. Manawatu also gets midfield strongman Frank Bryant back from suspension and skipper Josh Bradnock from injury, although Hamish Gosling is a doubtful starter on the other flank.

FORM: Auckland might be the old Wellington teams in disguise, as its form has fluctuated wildly in 2008. A weak opener against Counties Manukau was followed by a strong forward effort against Taranaki and a 3-34 thrashing from Canterbury last week. Amazingly, Auckland ranks 13th in points scored – not at all what one expects from such a talent-laden side. Manawatu beat Canterbury in a boil-over before turning in a sub-par effort against Southland. They recovered in fine style against Waikato after gifting the Mooloos a bunch of tries just after halftime, recovering from 16-38 with 20 minutes to play and almost taking all five points. A draw from there was still a good effort.

WHO'S HOT: The torch will be on Auckland's tight five, who need to be a lot better this week after a set-piece meltdown in Christchurch. Mealamu and Afoa will both be asked for major performances, while Daniel Braid needs support around the park. Perhaps Toeava is under most pressure, as he hasn't played in the pivot for some time and this has been Auckland's biggest weakness this season. There's pace out wide and strength in midfield, but Auckland needs a lot more punch from its back division. Manawatu's stars are mostly young and mostly in the backs, where Cruden will be looking for the same sort of spark as he had last week. A few knock-ons hurt in scoring situations but Andre Taylor is an expert finisher who does not miss many chances. The Bryant-Johnny Leota combination is also important. Manawatu's best forwards are the loose trio – Nick Crosswell is going nicely at the moment – and Hayden Triggs, who will be looking to place Auckland's shaky lineout under pressure.

WE THINK: This could be a fine match, especially if it stops raining in the north. We suspect Auckland will take it but, if Manawatu is either well ahead or just behind with 10 minutes to play, watch out.

TEAMS:

Auckland: 1 – Paea Fa'anunu, 2 – Keven Mealamu, 3 - John Afoa, 4 – Chris Lowery, 5 - Jay Williams, 6 – Kurtis Haiu, 7 – Daniel Braid, 8 – Peter Saili, 9 - Taniela Moa, 10 – Isaia Toeava, 11 – David Smith, 12 - Benson Stanley, 13 – Ben Atiga, 14 – Watisoni Lotawa, 15 – Lachie Munro.
Reserves: 16 – Tom McCartney, 17 – Tevita Mailau, 18 – Dean Budd, 19 – Onosai'i Auva'a, 20 – Grayson Hart, 21 – Jamie Helleur, 22 – Winston Stanley.

Manawatu: 1 – Grant Polson, 2 – Rob Foreman, 3 – David Te Moana, 4 – Hayden Triggs, 5 – Paul Rodgers, 6 – Hamish Gosling or Doug Tietjens, 7 – Josh Bradnock (captain), 8 – Nick Crosswell, 9 – Aaron Good, 10 – Aaron Cruden, 11 – Andre Taylor, 12 – Frank Bryant, 13 – Johnny Leota, 14 – Lote Raikabula, 15 – Francisco Bosch.

Reserves: 16 – Sean O'Connor, 17 – Talau Hala, 18 – James Goode, 19 – Tietjens or Adaam Ross, 20 – Aaron Smith, 21 – Aaron James, 22 – Kurt Baker.

REFEREE: Keith Brown