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Preview: Otago v Hawke's Bay

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Sportal.co.nz     19 Oct 2013     Getty Images

HEAD TO HEAD: Played: 52, Otago 33, Hawke's Bay 18, Drawn 1.

LAST TIME: Otago 19 lost to Hawke's Bay 20, at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

WALKING WOUNDED: Otago coach Tony Brown has made three changes to his starting lineup. Craig Millar returns to looshead, Tom Franklins is awarded a start at lock while Peter Breen has been called upon to fill the void left by Tony Ensor, who suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Hawke's Bay have named an unchanged 22.

FORM: Otago proved they were a top contender in the championship when they outclassed Waikato to claim the Ranfurly Shield for the first time in 56 years way back in round two.

Their opponents this week did just the same when they spoiled the celebrations in Dunedin just six days later.

Both teams had mixed results after the glow of the shield left town but look to have peaked with a string of wins heading into the playoffs.

Otago claimed a major scalp that boosted their confidence when they defeated Auckland 37-33 at home last week. Buxton Popoali'i, Tom Donnelly and Paul Grant all crossed for impressive tries but it was once again the boot of Hayden Parker that sealed the deal, with six penalties and two conversions.

Meanwhile, Hawke's Bay did the unthinkable when spoiling Wellington's perfect season in the final round. Ihaia West was in stunning form and landed the knockout blow to give his side a 35-24 win.

At McLean Park, the Lions were given a lesson in forward play as Karl Lowe inspired a dominant performance from the Magpie pack while their backs reaped the rewards.

West is a well known threat after scoring a handful of sensational solo tries this season, and his 40-metre burst last Thursday proved Otago will have to be on their game defensively for the full 80 minutes.

WE THINK: Either of these teams would be deserved winners. Both have X-factor in the No 10 jersey while their forwards have shown an ability to operate with a high level of efficiency.

It will likely come down to a single moment. It would not be surprising to see Hayden Parker, the most efficient kicker in the competition to date, step up and slot a winning penalty or even a dropped goal.

But it is just as likely that his opposite could set the Forsyth Barr Stadium turf alight with another one of his freakish moments.

We see this as an evenly matched contest. Having considered all the factors, including the home crowd advantage, we're going to tip Otago by a slender margin.

They fell short in last year's final and a significant chunk of the squad will be determined to go all the way this season.

Otago by 6.

TEAMS:

Otago: 1. Craig Millar, 2. Liam Coltman, 3. Scott Manson, 4. Tom Donnelly, 5. Tom Franklin, 6. Gareth Evans, 7. Lee Allen, 8. Paul Grant, 9. Fumiaki Tanaka, 10. Hayden Parker, 11. Matt Faddes, 12. Jayden Spence, 13. Kieran Moffat, 14. Buxton Popoali'i, 15. Peter Breen.

Reserves: 16. Sam Anderson-Heather, 17. Aki Seiuli, 18. Charlie O'Connell, 19. Ezra Taylor, 20. TJ Ioane/Willis Scott, 21. Josh Renton, 22. Teihorangi Walden.

Hawke's Bay: 1.Max Lahiff, 2. Ash Dixon, 3. Bredon Edmonds, 4. Michael Allardice, 5. Mark Abbott, 6. Mike Coman (c), 7. Brendon O'Connor, 8. Karl Lowe, 9. Alby Mathewson, 10. Ihaia West, 11. Mikey Vuicakau, 12. Andrew Horrell, 13. Richard Buckman, 14. Telusa Veainu, 15. Zac Guildford.

Reserves: 16: Ged Robinson, 17. Adrian Barone, 18. Trent Bosswell-Wakefield, 19. Mark Atkins, 20. Chris Eaton, 21. Adam Bradey, 22. Penikolo Latu.