There are unlikely to be too many surprises from either camp when familiar foes Tasman and Canterbury do battle in Nelson tomorrow evening.
BY PETER JONES [Marlborough App]
Although the 2016 and 2017 Mitre 10 Cup finalists won’t get the chance this time around to make it a three-peat of NPC final match-ups, Friday’s latest Battle of Trafalgar will have all the intensity and passion of a premiership decider.
Tasman take a slight psychological edge in to the semifinal, having tipped Canterbury over in the season-opener at Lansdowne Park, but plenty of water has flowed under the Pelorus Bridge since then.
The TAB odds (Tasman $1.70, Canterbury $2.15) reflect the fact that the Mako play at home and are on a six-game winning streak, but Canterbury have also won their last four matches and their ruthless nature come play-off time is legendary.
Mako head coach Leon MacDonald described the feeling in the home camp as "excited and positive”.
"We always enjoy playing Canterbury and they enjoy playing us – it’s going to be a great night.”
With the teams being so closely aligned - as part of the Crusaders franchise, plus geographically and idealistically - they know each other’s play intimately, suggesting a tight, no-frills encounter will eventuate. Consequently, small errors will be magnified, with discipline set to play a vital part.
"It is just the small things in these big games – things like, handling, tackle accuracy and discipline – the game is won on a combination of the small things and winning the little moments. It’s just a case of being in the right head space and working hard as long as we possibly can.
"It’s going to be tough – we are well aware of that and we are looking forward to that as well.”
MacDonald is hoping for a large turnout of spectators on Friday to put some wind under his side’s wings.
"The home factor is only a factor if we have a really good crowd who make lots of noise … they can give us an edge that way so hopefully we get a big crowd in to help us along … it might be the difference.”
The Mako selectors were able to name their strongest line-up for the semifinal, with all players reporting injury-free this week after several had to miss the previous game with niggles.
Up front, a fit-again Quentin Strange resumes his locking partnership with Pari Pari Parkinson, relegating veteran Alex Ainley to the bench.
The loose forward trio of Ethan Blackadder, Jed Brown and number eight Mike Curry is retained, one of the few occasions this season that the loosie combination remains intact.
The return of midfielders Levi Aumua and skipper David Havili sees Solomon Alaimalo move back to the left wing and Tima Faingaanuku switch to the right, pushing the impressive Tomas Aoake to the bench.
Tim O’Malley, who wore the 12 jersey against Hawke’s Bay, also drops to the bench.
A bonus for the Mako is the release by the All Blacks of hard-nosed prop Tim Perry for the game.
Given the exceptional work Wyatt Crockett and Tyrel Lomax have produced lately it is no surprise that Perry has been named to come off the bench, where he will provide late stability against what the traditionally-strong Canterbury pack.
Balancing Perry’s availability is the fact fellow All Black squad members Joe Moody and Luke Whitelock have been released to play for the Red and Blacks.
The Mako scrum has given them an edge in recent games, earning penalties at the set pieces and allowing their backline front-foot ball, but MacDonald knows that edge will be harder to find against Canterbury.
"The set piece is something we have hung our hat on in recent weeks, and that’s their strength as well, so that battle will go a long way to winning the game. We don’t expect to have the dominance we have enjoyed in previous weeks [against Canterbury] but we will still hold our own there and be strong.”
The match features plenty of pivotal and interesting match-ups. The battle of first fives Mitch Hunt for the Mako and Brett Cameron for Canterbury will be watched with interest, especially with Cameron named ahead of Hunt in the wider All Blacks side.
Will Jordan and Canterbury’s George Bridge are two of the competition’s most exciting fullbacks, centres Levi Aumua and Braydon Ennor possess different styles but are both game-breakers, while the tussle between feisty No 9's Finlay Christie and Mitch Drummond will be intense.
Up front, Lomax, newly-named in the All Blacks squad, will have his work cut out against the more-experienced Moody, while veteran lock Luke Romano will be looking to dominate young guns Strange and Parkinson at lineout time.
Seasoned campaigner Jed Brown comes up against rising star Tom Christie in the battle of the open side flankers, a match-up that could have a major bearing on the outcome.
Tasman: 1 Wyatt Crockett, 2 Andrew Makalio, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 5 Quentin Strange, 6 Ethan Blackadder, 7 Jed Brown, 8 Mike Curry; 9 Finlay Christie, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 12 David Havili (captain), 13 Levi Aumua, 14 Tima Faingaanuku, 15 Will Jordan.
Substitutes: 16 Ray Niuia, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Blair Prinsep, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Braden Stewart, 21 Jack Grooby, 22 Tim O’Malley, 23 Tomas Aoake.