Keo.co.za previews Saturday’s New Zealand Cup final between Waikato and Wellington, staged at the Waikato Stadium in Hamilton.
After a long season it comes down to this: the top two domestic teams in the world’s top rugby playing nation battling it out for the title of champions of New Zealand.
Both teams are fortunate enough to have all their All Blacks back for the final, the most notable inclusion for the Mooloo Men being Mils Muliaina, who was a doubtful starter last week with a bicep injury. The fullback’s return will no doubt bring another dimension to the Waikato attack, which already includes internationals such as Sitiveni Sivivatu and Byron Kellerher.
However, the Lions aren’t lacking Test experience in their line-up, and even boast the mercurial openside Chris Masoe on the bench. This match-up should be the close encounter that everybody expects, but fans can forget about seeing another stalemate like the one witnessed in Bloemfontein last week.
On paper, the Waikato triumvirate hold the slight edge, with Muliaina being the most prominent proponent. The quick stepping of Sivivatu and Sosene Anesi may also trouble the Wellington defenders on the counterattack, and for this reason, there should be minimal kicking by Lions flyhalf Jimmy Gopperth onto the wings.
The positioning of Ma’a Nonu on the wing for Wellington is interesting, and of course understandable, as you cannot afford to leave a player of his calibre out of any side. Much of Wellington’s success will depend on his work rate throughout this game, as he can be devastating as a ball-carrier.
Tana Umaga holds the key in this area, in this his final game before he heads off to Toulon in France. His opposite number, David Hill, will also be playing in his last game in New Zealand before he leaves for Bristol in the UK. Both are experienced heads who will be eager to get their outside runners away. Wellington’s Conrad Smith has progressed phenomenally since returning from a broken leg, while Waikato’s Richard Kahui has been one of the form players of the domestic tournament. A former combination at the highest level, Umaga and Smith may prove too classy for their Waikato counterparts.
Jimmy Gopperth and Piri Weepu have been a solid halfback combination both at domestic level and in the Vodacom Super 14. Kellerher has the ability to turn a match, but his success all depends on the performance of his forwards. George Gregan is great example of a quality scrumhalf who is often made to look ordinary when his forwards are being annihilated.
Class plays form in the back row, with big boys Ben Herring, Jerry Collins and Rodney So’oialo taking on Marty Holah, Sione Lauaki and the underrated Steven Bates. Lauaki and Bates will provide much of the impetus around the fringes, while Holah has the wood over Herring at the breakdown. But once again, this back row will only be able to truly flourish if their tight five do the job against the Lions.
Wellington are tipped to dominate the scrums, regardless if Neemia Tialata starts the game or not. The line-out should be more closely contested, with stalwarts Jono Gibbes and Keith Robinson jumping against Luke Andrews and Ross Filipo. A lot of pressure will be placed on Tom Willis and Mahorni Schwalger to find their jumpers, as possession is so vital in a final match. Loss of the ball on an own throw will be unforgivable.
As in the Super 14, the Waikato team will put up a brave fight, but the class of Wellington should win through. Both teams have some impressive finishers out wide, but the decisive battle will be at close quarters, where the visitors hold the advantage.
It will also be interesting to see if Waikato can hold the Lions in the final 20 minutes, when Masoe is likely to be introduced to increase the pace of the game and tire out the home forwards. For Waikato to win, Wellington need to have an off day.
Lions by 10.
Waikato: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Sosene Anesi, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 David Hill, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Byron Kelleher; 8 Sione Laukai, 7 Marty Holah, 6 Steven Bates (c), 5 Keith Robinson, 4, Jono Gibbes, 3 Nathan White, 2 Tom Willis, 1 Craig West.
Replacements: 16 Scott Linklater, 17 Aled de Malmanche, 18 Toby Lynn, 19 Liam Messam, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Dwayne Sweeney, 22 Roy Kiniknilau
Wellington: 15 Shannon Paku, 14 Ma’a Nonu, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Tana Umaga (c), 11 Cory Jane, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Rodney So’oialo, 7 Ben Herring, 6 Jerry Collins, 5 Luke Andrews, 4 Ross Filipo, 3 Neemia Tialata / John Schwalger, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Joe McDonnell. Reserves: 16 Luke Mahoney, 17 John Schwalger / Anthony Perenise, 18 Jeremy Thrush, 19 Chris Masoe, 20 Alby Mathewson, 21 Miah Nikora, 22 Lome Fa’atau.
Kick-off: Saturday, 19:35 (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Bryce Lawrence
Touch judges: Kelvin Deaker, Gary Wise
Television match official: Keith Brown
Weather: Temperature: Max: 21Â°C, Min: 12Â°C. Cloudy, drizzle at times, with a northwesterly wind.
By Jon Cardinelli