Lions coach opts for Bateman over Sopoaga
Wellington must be feeling good about themselves.
They've placed highly touted first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga on the bench for tomorrow's final round NPC match against Taranaki at Westpac Stadium.
For a young man good enough to start for the Highlanders, this will be a sobering experience for Sopoaga given he is back to 100 per cent fitness and there is a lot riding on tomorrow's outcome.
If Wellington win they host Auckland in the 2 v 3 semifinal next weekend but if they lose they will travel south to tackle Canterbury in the 1 v 4.
Those permutations are based on Canterbury beating Bay of Plenty at home tomorrow, a most likely outcome.
Wellington coach Chris Boyd is confident of his call, saying the form of his backline, when Sopoaga failed a late fitness test against Otago last week, warranted retaining Tim Bateman at No 10.
Did Boyd agonise over the selection? "No - at the end of the day you make your call and stick with it," he said.
Will they miss Sopoaga's goalkicking?
"Woody (Jason Woodward) kicked seven from seven last week."
How did Lima take the news?
"They all want to play but he took the decision well. He realises the other guys have played well and he has to come on and play a good cameo to get the jersey next week. That is what high performance sport is all about.
"Charlie Ngatai has settled well at fullback and Alapati (Leiua) did good silent work at centre so I've stuck with the combination.
"Lima will come into the game at some stage and whether he has to chase the game or close it out, I have real faith in him."
Taranaki have been boosted by the availability of All Black Beauden Barrett and the return from concussion of Andre Taylor. Both know the ground well from their impressive season with the Hurricanes.
Boyd acknowledged the class of the pair but teams scout well these days and the Wellington coach hinted Barrett will be targeted in defence.
"A lot of guys are familiar with his strengths and weaknesses, having played with him in the Canes, so we'll certainly ask the question," Boyd said.
For all the backline talk, the weather forecast is for it to bucket down and possibly prevent Wellington from playing their ball in hand, width game.
A forward battle will suit Taranaki's grizzly forwards, led by Jason Eaton.
Wellington have changed their loose forward trio in anticipation of a titanic battle at the breakdown. Scott Fuglistaller gets the nod at No 7 with Ardie Savea switching to No 8 and Genesis Mamea relegated to the bench.
Taranaki have placed their trust in Kane Barrett for the openside role, older brother of Beauden Barrett.
"Genesis is probably unlucky," Boyd said.
"He had a very good game against Otago and is a very good open, running type of forward, but we think Scotty will give us more at the breakdown, which we think will be important in this game.
"Scotty has been chosen to contest the ball rather than to run around. Genesis will come into the game at some stage and play a big part."
No matter how you look at it, history shows that Wellington win these Hurricanes franchise battles against Taranaki at Westpac Stadium.
Taranaki have Barrett back and will earn a home semi at Wellington's expense if they win so after 53 days of Tuesday to Sunday NPC pool play it is good that there is still something at stake.
The Dominion Post