Wellington coach Chris Boyd tips Canterbury to be top NPC qualifiers but a home semifinal remains in the Lions' grasp after their best 40 minutes of the season last Saturday.
The Lions host Taranaki at Westpac Stadium on the final day of the regular season on Sunday, after remaining top of the premiership table with a seven-try 49-22 blitz of Otago in Dunedin.
They lead Taranaki and Auckland by one point after both secured maximum points in victories over Southland and North Harbour, respectively. Canterbury have two matches remaining, against Hawke's Bay in Napier on Wednesday and Bay of Plenty in Christchurch on Sunday. Boyd expects the red-and-blacks to secure 10 points and finish atop the ladder.
“Canterbury are in the box seat. If we get five [points] against Taranaki then we'll finish second; if we get four we'll finish third and if we lose to Taranaki we'll finish fourth. Anything's possible," Boyd said.
Auckland and Wellington are likely to finish second and third, and if they're level on points, Auckland gain home semifinal advantage due to their win between the sides last month.
Boyd rated the first half against Otago as Wellington's best of the season as they played at breakneck speed against a team backing up from Tuesday to lead 35-10 at the break.
But he warned against thinking the performance pointed to a comfortable win against Taranaki on Sunday.
“Otago is a young side with a lot of guys coming out of the club environment and we were able to dictate terms at the breakdown which I'm sure we won't be able to do against Taranaki. It won't be anything like that game."
First five-eighth Lima Sopoaga (ankle) and flanker Lua Lokotui (hamstring) were both expected to be fit to face Taranaki, Boyd said.
Sopoaga rolled his ankle during training on Thursday and despite Boyd's confidence he'd be fit, Sopoaga wasn't risked. Tim Bateman reverted to No 10 and had an armchair ride behind a dominant pack, in which loose forwards Ardie Savea and Genesis Mamea had field days.
The reshuffle also handed wing Matt Proctor a late recall and the 19-year-old made the most of it with three tries.
It gave Boyd a selection headache if Sopoaga returns, with Alapati Leiua one of the Lions' best this season and fellow wing Jason Woodward also in form and converting all seven Wellington tries.
“He [Proctor] made a genuine claim and he's improving each week. There's a bit of a decision to be made there."
There were no new injury concerns although his side were "battered and bruised" after an intense few weeks.
Still, Boyd found a few reasons to frown at his team's second half performance when the the game was in safe keeping.
“You can't be happy when the scrum was great but the lineout needs to be better. Our kick receipt was pretty average and we gave away a couple of soft tries around the goal-line. There was a lot of good stuff mixed in with stuff that wasn't so good."
In the second-tier championship, Manawatu made a late semifinal bid with a 20-7 win over Hawke's Bay in a crossover match in dreadful conditions in Palmerston North. Northland, Manawatu and Southland are all in a scrap for fourth spot.
Hawke's Bay remain in relegation territory and suffered a further blow ahead of Wednesday's match against Canterbury with All Black Zac Guildford (torn hamstring) and captain Michael Coman (concussion) both injured.
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