NPC : Semi finals preview
Huw Turner
October 16, 2002

In the round robin phase of this season's First Division NPC campaign, Waikato and Canterbury played out one of the year's classic matches in Hamilton. This weekend, as we approach the semi finals of the 2002 competition, a rematch in the final between the same two sides is a very real prospect.

On Saturday evening Otago, fresh from a Ranfurly Shield challenge in Christchurch which fell agonizingly short of being successful, are the visitors to Hamilton. Having thrown everything at the Cantabrians, is there likely be anything left in the energy banks with which to confront Deon Muir's men ? The easy answer is probably no, but the Waikato forward pack has been deprived of both Royce Willis and Jonno Gibbes through injury . The lineout efficiency and go-forward potency of the Mooloo men has relied heavily on the athleticism and physical presence of both and Taine Randell's eight may just have spotted a vulnerability to exploit. Incidentally, Willis has today announced a two-year deal in Japan at precisely the moment when he seemed to be re-discovering the 1998 form which made him an All Black. The feeling persists that he never quite fulfilled his potential and now it looks as though Waikato has seen the last of him.

Waikato have built their season around the power of their forward drive and the cutting edge of a superb back division. Deon Muir has been back to something like his best at no8, Marty Holah has been the form opensider of the NPC and lock Keith Robinson has emerged as a very likely All Black tourist in a few weeks. He has achieved aerial domination of both lineouts and restarts and has been able to assert himself physically whilst maintaining a discipline which makes him an asset rather than a liability. Regan King has been the midfield find of the season with his silky running and eye for the gap, Keith Lowen has been irresistibly powerful on the burst and Roger Randle and Bruce Reihana have continued to play the role of match winners. What a shame that the latter will be heading for Northampton at the end of the season. Has New Zealand not been just a little careless in letting his all round talents through the net ?

Otago, with the likes of Taine Randell, the underrated Kelvin Middleton and Josh Blackie in the back row, Simon Maling and Filipo Levi in the locking positions and Joe McDonnell, Carl Hoeft and Carl Hayman in the front row have formidable forward resources. Their mauling had Canterbury on the back foot and it was only the tenacious class of Justin Marshall that finally repelled them last Saturday. Tony Brown's replacement Blair Feeney has had a terrific season but remains suspect when the crucial kicks come along. In the Ranfurly Shield Andrew Mehrtens kicked them, Feeney did not. Fijian wingers Rabeni and Tuilevu have been in superb form , in many respects redefining the job descriptions usually assigned to the wearers of the nos 11 and 14 jerseys. They find themselves with so much ball in hand precisely because they refuse to be isolated on their respective flanks. But Ryan Nicholas is having a typically quiet second NPC season after an impressive 2001 and Otago are vulnerable at the back , where Neil Brew is currently filling in for the injured Willie Walker who was filling in for the departed Brendan Laney and Jeff Wilson. It is difficult to see any result other than a 12-15 points winning margin for Waikato.

In Friday's semi final, Auckland have a much better chance than they had in the same fixture last year. Canterbury, packed with All Blacks, are looking jaded. These players enjoyed an unbeaten Super 12 campaign as the Crusaders and an almost unbeaten Tri Nations season as the All Blacks and are beginning to show the signs of fatigue. Consequently, the time might just be right for an upset, and New Zealand rugby could probably do with one.

Graham Henry has returned to the Auckland coaching fold and is widely regarded as having been responsible for the renaissance in their forward play. Kees Meeuws will surely get an All Black recall and hooker Keven Mealamu could join him. He is a real dynamo in the loose, although doubts remain about his effectiveness in the tight. Lock Ali Williams has maintained the progress of 2001 and could be an All Black bolter. He has the range and athleticism of a young Ian Jones and apparently has the ambition to go with it. Skipper Xavier Rush has been inspired and opensider Daniel Braid a real find. Behind the pack, Carlos Spencer has returned to fly half after James Arlidge and Lee Stensness failed for different reasons. Recently his form has been sensational, his place as All Black back-up to Andrew Mehrtens assured.

The resilience and quality of this Canterbury side is well documented. How often in recent times have they fought off the challenge of opponents who seemed certain to succeed ? They can always find at least one player capable of stepping up to produce the remarkable or unexpected. It seems that John Mitchell will rest a number in the interests of World Cup success , but Andrew Mehrtens is not one of them. This week he has been dismissing talk of burn-out and pledging himself to play through to Australia 2003. Auckland must be rated as a chance , but a Canterbury defeat is not a real option.

So , in the final analysis it is quite simple : Hamilton will host next week's final when Waikato line up to face Canterbury.

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