PREVIEW: National Provincial Championship, Final
NPC SPOTLIGHT: Canterbury are aiming for their eighth National Provincial Championship title when they take on Tasman at AMI Stadium on Saturday.
Canterbury earned the right to host the final by qualifying top of the table at the end of pool play and then beating Counties Manukau in their semifinal at the weekend.
Canterbury head coach Scott Robertson, in his last game in charge of the side before he moves onto the Crusaders head coach role, said he was immensely proud of the team for putting themselves in the best possible position at this end of the competition.
"I could not be more proud of this 2016 Canterbury team and all that they have achieved. Nine wins from 11 games so far, a top of the table placing, the Ranfurly Shield, and just one last prize to try and claim on Saturday night. This challenge will be our biggest one yet, but I know that this team has the talent and the heart to face it," Robertson said.
Robertson has made four changes to the team that beat Counties Manukau last weekend. In the forwards, props Daniel Lienert-Brown and Alex Hodgman have rotated so that Lienert-Brown starts in the Number one jersey this week. David McDuling replaces the All Blacks-bound Scott Barrett at lock, while Jed Brown comes onto the bench.
Rob Thompson has recovered from his knee injury to return at second five, while Jordie Barrett moves to centre. Jack Goodhue will miss the final with a hamstring injury.
Johnny McNicholl, at fullback, will play not only his last game in red and black before heading to the Scarlets Club in Wales, but his 100th game in red and black. It will be his 60th match for Canterbury, to add to his 40 Crusaders caps. Robertson said that this will add some emotion to what is already a special night for the team: "Nobody needs any extra motivation when it comes to finals footy, but there is no doubt that all of Johnny’s teammates will be determined to send their good mate out on a high note on Saturday night,"
While Tasman have named a familiar-looking side for Saturday's Grand Final.
The camp has had to deal with a spate of injuries in recent weeks, meaning a series of late fitness tests has been required to confirm the line-up for the decider.
There was good and bad news in the loose forward area. Pete Samu, who left the field with the injury during the first half of Sunday's semifinal in New Plymouth, is fit to play but fellow loose forward Tevita Koloamatangi has been ruled out, Shannon Frizell taking his place on the other side of the scrum from inspirational skipper Shane Christie.
In another change to last week's starting line-up, lock Quentin Strange who was injured against Southland, replaces the impressive Pari Pari Parkinson in the middle row, operating alongside workhorse Alex Ainley. Parkinson gets a seat on the bench.
A selection sure to raise eyebrows is that of outstanding hooker Andrew Makalio who broke a bone in his hand against Southland on October 16, but passed the required fitness tests to get the nod in the number two jersey, relegating Jesse MacDonald to a powerful-looking bench.
Tim Perry and Ross Geldenhuys get the starting berths at prop with Kane Hames and Siua Halanukonuka again expected to provide impact from the bench.
The backline remains the same. Marty Banks and Kieron Fonotia have been named to start their final games for the union before heading abroad while midfielder Alex Nankivell has kept David Havili, who has made an equally speedy recovery from a calf muscle injury to get into the mix for the decider, on the bench.
Billy Guyton retains the nine jersey while the familiar back three of James Lowe, Viliami Lolohea and fullback Mitchell Hunt is retained.
Canterbury: 15 Johnny McNicholl, 14 Nathan Earle, 13 Jordie Barrett, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Ereatara Enari, 8 Luke Whitelock (captain), 7 Tom Sanders, 6 Reed Prinsep, 5 Dominic Bird, 4 David McDuling, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Vella, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Jed Brown, 20 Billy Harmon, 21 Jack Stratton, 22 Inga Finau, 23 Ben Volavola.
Tasman: 15 Mitchell Hunt, 14 Viliami Lolohea, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Alex Nankivell, 11 James Lowe, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Billy Guyton; 8 Pete Samu, 7 Shane Christie (captain), 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Quentin Strange, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Jesse MacDonald, 17 Kane Hames, 18 Siua Halanukonuka, 19 Pari Pari Parkinson, 20 Ethan Blackadder, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 David Havili, 23 Caleb Makene.
Date: Saturday, October 29
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand
Kick-off: 19.35 NZDT (6.35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill, Angus Mabey
TMO: Aaron Paterson