The Ricoh Wellington Lions travel to Whangarei to take on Northland in their fifth round ITM Cup match this coming Sunday afternoon, kick-off 4.35 pm.
The Lions will be hunting their fifth consecutive bonus point win in this match against Northland, which is their third straight crossover match against Championship division opposition.
After four matches, the Lions (on 20 points) hold a six-point lead to joint second placed Canterbury (14) and Auckland (14), who have both played one fewer game than Wellington.
The Lions will be heading into this encounter well rested after previously playing three matches in nine days. In these they defeated Taranaki (29-10), North Harbour (35-27) and Manawatu (42-15).
Against North Harbour, the Lions were fast out of the blocks before protecting their lead in the second half, while against Manawatu they ran away with the match late in the contest after being behind at the three-quarter mark.
Greater consistency is a key theme for the Lions, with big matches to come after this against Premiership opposition Bay of Plenty, Canterbury, Waikato and Auckland.
With several exciting players and a penchant for playing matches against Wellington at breakneck speed, Northland will present a tough challenge for the Lions on Sunday. They will also be eager to win after letting their last match slip from their grasp. Similarly, they’re also locked in for their second Ranfurly Shield challenge of the season the following week against new holders Hawke’s Bay so will want to show some form ahead of that.
The Taniwha are coming off a 33-33 draw with neighbouring North Harbour down the road at Albany. In a see-saw match, North Harbour led early before Northland grabbed the initiative and led 20-8 at halftime, but they then conceded a late converted try. Prior to last week’s draw, Northland lost to Waikato 22-31 in a Ranfurly Shield challenge and then pipped Southland 13-9 in their first match at home at TOLL Stadium.
Northland’s pack contains several ITM Cup veterans, such as prop Bronson Murray, who is closing in on 100 matches, and loose forwards Dan Pryor and Jake Paringatai, as well as new players such as 2m lock Tom Murday out of the Reds Academy.
Any side with Rene Ranger and Rupeni Caucaunibuca is a dangerous prospect, while Northland first five-eighth Ben Seymour, previously of the Western Force, and their other Fijian wing Jone Tori-Macilai are two other players to watch.
The Lions forwards will be working hard to starve the Taniwha of possession and in turn to free up their own in-form backs, with such players as Shaun Treeby, Charlie Ngatai and Matt Proctor in top form so far. Lions first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga is also the competition’s leading points score to date with 61 points, while lock Ross Filipo has scored four tries.
Sunday’s match will also be their first meeting for three years.
Last time they met in 2010 the Lions won 31-28. After trailing throughout the match and being down 10-25 at halftime, prop John Schwalger scored the match winner with time almost up.
In 26 ITM Cup encounters between 1976-2010 Wellington has won 21 and Northland five. Wellington’s last loss to Northland was in 2000.
Wellington has scored exactly 100 tries in all ITM Cup matches against Northland and Northland has scored a total of 48 tries in all ITM Cup matches against Wellington.
Wellington has scored four or more tries in each of its last seven ITM Cup matches against Northland.
In three matches so far in 2013, Northland have scored 68 points and conceded 73. In four matches the Lions have scored 161 points and conceded 68.