MISSING IN ACTION: Chris Boyd was dealt a huge blow with the withdrawal of Charlie Ngatai (injury) and Corey Jane (All Blacks).
The duo have been replaced by Shaun Treeby and Matt Proctor, while three new faces – John Schwalger, Api Naikatini and Frae Wilson – feature in Wellington’s starting lineup.
Counties Manukau coach Tana Umga has opted for just one change this week. Prop Matt Talaese is set for just his second start of the season, forcing regular tighthead Jarrod Firth to switch to the other side of the scrum.
FORM: Wellington’s quest for a perfect season came to crashing halt when they travelled to face the gutsy Magpies last week.
The Lions, perhaps with one eye already on the playoffs, strayed from the systems that had served them well over nine consecutive wins and were beaten 35-24 in Napier.
An apparent lack of enthusiasm led to uncharacteristic errors that allowed Hawke’s Bay to linger in the attacking half, while the likes of Karl Lowe and Brendon O’Connor asserted their physical dominance at the breakdown.
Class isn’t lost overnight, but Wellington will need to refocus and get back into a steady mindset before they pull the jersey on again.
Meanwhile, Counties have reason to be confident after ending the regular season with a dominant 25-7 win over Southland that ensured the Ranfurly Shield will stay in Pukekohe over the summer.
Clearly a class above, Counties impressed with strangling defence while the natural instincts of backline stars such as Bundee Aki made for an entertaining night of running rugby for the home fans.
While their well documented issues at the set-piece continued, coach Umaga will have been pleased with what his men did on the defensive side of the ball, especially on their own line.
WE THINK: The Wellington machine shouldn’t be written off for one bad performance. There are enough players in the group who are well versed at closing out matches.
Although set-piece isn’t everything, it will have a significant impact if the Lions are the only team gaining possession from it.
Stags captain Jamie Mackintosh exposed the Steelers scrum and may have forced Umaga to rethink his selections – hence the introduction of Talaese.
Although there are a number of talking points in this one, we can’t help but feel that Counties absolutely must find something extra up front if they are to have any success.
We’re open to an upset but logic dictates that Wellington should come out with the goods because of their ability to lay a solid platform to launch their attack from.
Their defence is also among the top five in the competition.
When Counties have defied the odds this year – against Hawke’s Bay and for 60 minutes against Canterbury – their tight five were menacing and their loose forwards added punch with ball in hand.
There have been games where both of those elements were missing and it got ugly fast.
Wellington by 10.
Wellington: 1. John Schwalger, 2. Motu Matu’u, 3. Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 4. Mark Reddish, 5. Api Naikatini, 6. Brad Shields, 7. Ardie Savea, 8. Victor Vito (c) 9. Frae Wilson, 10. Lima Sopoaga, 11. Alapati Leiua, 12. Shaun Treeby, 13. Tim Bateman, 14. Joe Hill, 15. Matt Proctor.
Reserves: 16. Reggie Goodes, 17. Eric Sione, 18. Kaipati Gaualofa, 19. Faifili Levave, 20. Adam Hill, 21. Tomasi Palu, 22. Ambrose Curtis.
Counties Manukau: 1. Jarrod Firth, 2. Hika Elliot, 3. Matt Talaese, 4. Ronald Raaymakers, 5. Jimmy Tupou, 6. Adam Cathcart, 7. Maama Vaipulu, 8. Fritz Lee (c), 9. Kane Hancy, 10. Baden Kerr, 11. Toni Pulu, 12. Bundee Aki, 13. Rey Lee-Lo, 14. Frank Halai, 15. Ahsee Tuala.
Reserves: 16. Suliasi Taufalele, 17. Simon Lemalu, 18. Sikeli Nabou, 19. Mark Selwyn, 20. Lucky Palamo, 21. Ki Anufe, 22. Sam Vaka.