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Preview: Otago v Tasman

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Mitre10Cup.co.nz     09 Sep 2016     Getty Images

FORM: Not much needs to be said when you've taken maximum competition points from four matches. The Golden O have been impressive at times in their unbeaten run so far, but have been tested by a couple of sides. They were sluggish against Southland in the opening half of the season before overwhelming the hosts 40-17 thanks to a big second 40 minutes. They followed this up with three matches in 10 days, culminating in a last-gasp 33-32 win over Bay of Plenty last Sunday. They won ugly at times, but got the job done and are almost assured of a playoff spot with six rounds to go.

Tasman started their 2016 campaign with an important 24-19 over fellow Premiership battlers Waikato, before encountering an intimidating Canterbury side 14-45 in Christchurch. The Makos responded with an important 25-20 win over Taranaki that ensures they are both in the playoff hunt, and five points clear of Hawke's Bay in the relegation zone. A win on Saturday could see them move as high as second on the ladder, but they will need other results to go their way as well.

DATE AND TIME: Otago v Tasman, Saturday September 10, 4.35pm
PLAYED: 10
WINS: Otago 6, Tasman 3, Draws 1
LAST TIME: Otago 17 Tasman 34, 2015 in Dunedin

TEAMS:
Otago: 1. Aki Seiuli, 2. Sam Anderson-Heather, 3. Hisa Sasagi, 4. Josh Dickson, 5. Tom Franklin, 6. Naulia Dawai, 7. Lee Allan, 8. Paul Grant (captain), 9. Jonathan Ruru, 10. Fletcher Smith, 11. Jack Wilson, 12. Teihorangi Walden, 13. Matt Faddes, 14. Mitchell Scott, 15. Michael Collins.

Substitutes: 16. Sekonia Pole, 17. Craig Millar, 18. Donald Brighouse, 19. Adam Knight, 20. James Lentjes, 21. Josh Walden, 22. Scott Eade, 23. Fa'asiu Fuata'i.

Tasman (probable): 1. Tim Perry, 2. Andrew Makalio, 3. Ross Geldenhuys, 4. Shannon Frizell, 5. Quinten Strange, 6. Tevita Koloamatagi, 7. Shane Christie (captain), 8. Peter Samu, 9. Billy Guyton, 10. Marty Banks, 11. Jesse Pitman, 12. David Havili, 13. Kieron Fonotia, 14. Tima Faingaanuku, 15. Mitchell Hunt.

Reserves: 16. Jesse MacDonald, 17. Kane Hames, 18. Blair Prinsep, 19. Jeff Lepa, 20. Ethan Blackadder, 21. Finlay Christie, 22. Trael Joass, 23. Alex Nankivell.

SQUAD UPDATE: A fatigued Otago side have made a number of changes to their lineup, including a reshuffled front row. Aki Seiuli, Sam Anderson-Heather and Hisa Sasagi are given the starting jerseys, while Sekonia Pole and Donald Brighouse are rested. The Golden O are, of course, without hooker Liam Coltman who has linked up with the All Blacks. Fletcher Smith and Paul Grant, who will don the captain's armband on Saturday, also return to the starting side at the expense of Scott Eade and Naulia Dawai, who shifts from No.8 to blindside flanker.

For Tasman, the Makos come without a stack of key players, including Alex Ainley, Siosiua Halanukonuka and James Lowe. Ainley is resting up, while Halanukonuka (ankle) and Lowe (thumb) are both watching from the injury ward. Halanukonuka should be available for the Makos' next game, after being named to come off the bench for the second-tier Tasman Griffins this week. Marty Banks injured his hamstring in last week's clash with Taranaki, but has been deemed fit enough to start at first five-eighths for the visitors.

KEY PLAYERS: Jonathan Ruru may have been given the starting halfback role, but Josh Walden will no doubt make a big impression from the bench with his dynamic running and reliable pass. His combination with Fletcher Smith, or Scott Eade, could go a significant way to wearing down the Makos on attack. Michael Collins at fullback will also be keen to continue his strong run of form, while Josh Dickson should fare well against opposing lock Shannon Frizell.

For Tasman, a lot hinges on captain Shane Christie's shoulders. The dynamic loose forward plays his best rugby for the Makos, and his strong carries could help inspire the visitors on attack. Billy Guyton brings an air of assuredness to the halfback role in a match that could go down to the wire. Kieron Fonotia should also fare well, and his try to help give the Makos a much-needed win over Taranaki will ensure he has plenty of confidence.

THE VERDICT: A lot of tight mini-battles within this one means it's almost too close to call. Forget about which division these sides play in, Otago should enter this game as favourites. The Makos' ability to keep notching up points through Marty Banks' boot should keep scoreboard pressure ticking on the hosts, but ultimately it should come down to the depth on the reserves bench - something that should see Otago get home within a converted try.