Air New Zealand Cup - Round 12 Preview
Time running out for semi-final hopefuls
October 14, 2009
All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter will start for Canterbury against Hawke's Bay this weekend © Getty Images
The cream is rising slowly but surely to the top as the pretenders for the Air New Zealand Cup semi-finals begin to feel the effects of battle fatigue.
With two rounds to go, defending champions Canterbury lead the standings comfortably with 42 points but the other three spots are still up for grabs.
Canterbury kick off Round 11 with a trip to McLean Park in Napier to tackle fellow high-flyers Hawke's Bay on Thursday night. All Blacks stars Dan Carter and Richie McCaw return for the Cantabs in a host of changes to the side that comfortably defended the Ranfurly Shield against Manawatu last weekend.
McCaw slots in at No.8 for the competition leaders in place of Nasi Manu while All Blacks loose forward Kieran Read is unavailable with a head injury and replaced by Michael Paterson. Carter comes in for Stephen Brett, who is ruled out with a back strain. Another returning All Black is lock Isaac Ross, making his first Air NZ Cup start this year alongside international team-mate Brad Thorn.
There is a midfield shuffle courtesy of the return of Casey Laulala at centre. Tim Bateman shifts to second five-eighth and Ryan Crotty to the reserve bench. James Paterson will start on the left wing ahead of Tu Umaga-Marshall.
Second-placed Hawke's Bay have won their last five games can go close to booking a semi-final berth if they win but have not beaten Canterbury since 1982. In-form Hawke's Bay winger Zac Guildford, who will play for the Crusaders next season, will face in-form speedster Sean Maitland while Hikawera Elliot gets the starting spot at hooker and Nick Thomson replaces Mark Jackman on the wing. The match is a repeat of last year's semi-final in Christchurch, won 31-21 by Canterbury.
On Friday, strugglers Manawatu face Bay of Plenty in Palmerston North with the visitors needing a big victory to keep their post-season hopes alive and Southland will be looking to cement their place in the semi-final picture when they welcome Taranaki to Invercargill. Taranaki have called on All Blacks Jason Eaton and Andrew Hore to bolster their forward effort. Jamie Mackintosh returns to the Southland front-row, while All Black scrum-half Jimmy Cowan also starts after scoring a try last weekend.
The action continues on Saturday with Wellington, currently semi-finals-bound in third place, entertaining North Harbour at the Westpac Stadium. Piri Weepu starts at scrum-half for Wellington with his tour hopes in the balance and Rodney So'oialo will be hoping for a big performance at No.8. Cory Jane, Ma'a Nonu and Hosea Gear will also be out to impress and start.
North Harbour are again lead by Anthony Boric, while Nalu Tuigamala's super showing last weekend in victory over Bay of Plenty is only enough to secure a place on the bench.
Elsewhere, lowly Otago play host to mid-table Tasman. Tasman were outclassed by Southland last weekend and will need a swift response. Otago add some grit to their pack with the in-form Adam Thomson and, fresh from an impressive All Black debut, Tom Donnelly both starting.
Playoffs-chasing Waikato taking on Northland in Hamilton. Waikato have again been boosted by their All Black contingent, with Stephen Donald and Brendon Leonard starting at halfback and Aled de Malmanche slotting in to the front-row.
The round concludes with Auckland tackling basement side Counties Manukau. Auckland have been boosted by their All Blacks after another mixed season, with Joe Rokocoko, John Afoa and Jerome Kaino all slotting in to the starting XV.