Preview:Canterbury v Auckland

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Friday, October 26, 2012    Getty Images

That all changes on Saturday, when Canterbury goes looking for its fifth straight title and Auckland, co-holder of the record of four, looks to maintain its perfect record in the big game.

VENUE & TIME: AMI Stadium, Addington, Saturday October 27 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 93; Canterbury 42, Auckland 46, drawn 5.

LAST TIME: August 29, 2012 (Addington, round 2) – Canterbury 33-11 Auckland.

WALKING WOUNDED: Canterbury had a few key players in the MASH tent during the week, with Tom Taylor (ankle), Ryan Crotty (abdominal strain) and Adam Whitelock (eye) all undergoing some fairly intensive rehab; only Taylor made the cut for this match. Canterbury has two All Black props in Wyatt Crockett and Ben Franks available, while a third – Charlie Faumuina – will be in the Auckland squad. Piri Weepu was also released by the All Blacks but not chosen in the 22. Ali Williams and Angus Ta'avao both passed fitness tests late in the week, so the only change from the semi-final sees Williams in the run-on XV; Faumuina will be on the bench.

Round 7: beat Southland 84-0 (h)
Round 8: beat Northland 56-11 (a)
Round 9: beat Hawke's Bay 44-3 (a)
Round 10: beat Bay of Plenty 63-22 (h)
Semi: beat Taranaki 51-27 (aet, h, sf)

Round 7: beat Wellington 43-30 (h)
Round 8: beat Counties-Manukau 22-18 (h)
Round 9: beat North Harbour 36-16 (a)
Round 10: beat Otago 24-19 (a)
Semi: beat Wellington 33-22 (a)

Canterbury might have piled up yet another half-century last weekend, but there was nothing easy about that win and it took 100 minutes of rugby to get the result. In fact there was almost no need for overtime, as if Taranaki had converted either of its last two tries the game would have been won and lost right there. The Canterbury coaching staff was probably guilty of putting the cue in the rack too early, as things really changed when Robbie Fruean left with a few minutes to play – and again when he came back to replace Tom Taylor. Over the closing stages Taranaki had nothing left, and the score inflated quickly in the last ten minutes. Canterbury eventually won this pulsating game by a wide margin, but there was little between the sides on the field.

Auckland started off its semi-final as if they meant to deny Wellington any possession for the entire 80 minutes, as almost ten had passed before Wellington got more than a fleeting glimpse of the ball. Auckland's control in the opening stages was highly impressive even if points did not come readily, but turning with a one-point lead would have worried the visitors. Wellington scored soon after halftime but the match turned when the officials blew a call and awarded a try to Pauliasi Manu when he had been tackled into touch. Wellington then started making errors and gifted the visitors the decisive try with some horrible passing on their own line and the final score was about right, even if the way it was eventually arrived at left something to be desired.

WHO'S HOT: As ever, the Canterbury forwards will be asked to lay the platform and on the form he showed in the semi, Wyatt Crockett will happily take on the role of chief builder. He had a powerful game, capped off with two tries that threatened to take the game away from Taranaki in regulation time. His strength in the tight exchanges will be matched by Matt Todd's speed and aggression at the breakdown, where he has been a dominant force all season. If Todd wins the loose-ball race, Canterbury will get a roll on that is very hard to stop. Last week Robbie Fruean was a monster, showing the sort of power that we all know he possesses but really dominating the game. Canterbury lost something when he was dragged with a few minutes to go, and immediately regained it when he came back to replace Tom Taylor. In that sort of form, he is a bloke who can win this match with two or three inspired plays.

Auckland's forwards were outstanding last week at Wellington, where the home side scarcely handled the ball for the first ten minutes and were under pressure throughout. Pauliasi Manu did a lot of the hard yards and, even if his try was dodgy, had a really big match. Once again he will be asked to do a lot of the tough stuff, and he'll be ready to shoulder the burden. Daniel Braid is set to play his 100th match for Auckland (even if the first-class status of two of them is in doubt), and he needs to match or better whatever Todd does for Canterbury. He was another who made a big contribution last week; most of it was not that obvious but he was doing the work. Alby Mathewson capped off the effort up front with his best game of the season, choosing his options well and then making those choices pay. Dangerous on the run, he linked well with the forwards or freed the backs in fine style and was one of the best on show in the match.

WE THINK: The outcome will be determined by one thing – which pack will be able to control the game. On the form of last week, Auckland certainly can do it; now they simply have to do it. Canterbury, we know, are capable. Both backlines will take advantage of any margin the big grunters can get – and the two best kickers in the competition are there to back that up – so the set pieces and breakdowns will be the barometer. Both sides are looking to maintain outstanding finals records, but we think Canterbury will get there and pick the red-and-blacks by five to ten points.

Canterbury: 1. Wyatt Crockett, 2. Ben Funnell, 3. Ben Franks, 4. Joel Everson, 5. Dominic Bird, 6. George Whitelock (capt), 7. Matt Todd, 8. Luke Whitelock, 9. Andy Ellis, 10. Tyler Bleyendaal, 11. Willi Heinz, 12. Tom Taylor, 13. Robbie Fruean, 14. Telusa Veainu, 15. Johnny McNicholl.

Reserves: 16. Codie Taylor, 17. Joe Moody, 18. Jed Brown, 19. Jordan Taufua, 20. Matthew Thatcher, 21. Kolio Hifo, 22. Stephen Gee.

Auckland: 1. Pauliasi Manu, 2. Tom McCartney, 3. Angus Ta'avao, 4. Liaki Moli, 5. Ali Williams, 6. Steven Luatua, 7. Daniel Braid (capt), 8. Joe Edwards, 9. Alby Mathewson, 10. Gareth Anscombe, 11. Dave Thomas, 12. Hadleigh Parkes, 13. Malakai Fekitoa, 14. Ben Lam, 15.Charles Piutau.

Reserves: 16. Nathan Vella, 17. Charlie Faumuina, 18. Andrew van der Heijden, 19. Wayne Ngaluafe, 20. Scott Patterson, 21. Simon Hickey, 22. Lolagi Visinia.

REFEREE: Glen Jackson