Otago may be fielding three All Blacks in tonight's championship NPC final but Counties Manukau coach Tana Umaga sees it as a positive.
Adam Thomson, Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith all feature in the Razorbacks side, thanks to Steve Hansen releasing them, but the All Blacks coach wasn't able to send any early Christmas presents the Steelers' way.
Counties have made one change from the team that smashed Southland 48-23 last weekend, with blindside flanker Mark Selwyn coming back into the starting team. Umaga sees it as a good challenge for his players to go up against All Blacks.
"Obviously it's going to make an impact on the quality of their [Otago's] game but for us it's a good marking stick for some of our players," Umaga said.
"Our midfield has been playing well and they aspire to be All Blacks.
"Our guys have signed Super Rugby contracts and they'll definitely meet them [Otago] next year, so it will be good for them to see where they are now and what they have to work on over the off-season."
Umaga has been trying to keep things low-key with the team this week but admits that the excitement of playing in a final may get to the players.
"The bigger the game, the more pressure that comes with it," the former All Blacks captain said.
"What we've tried to say is that a lot of the pressure comes from outside influences.
"If we keep concentrating on our roles and what we know, then we're halfway there.
"You can't pull the wool over the players' eyes and say this is just another game.
"It is going to be a good learning experience for these guys to have a bit more pressure on them.
"You see some players step up but until they're in this situation you just don't know."
Counties beat Otago, 43-12 in round seven in September but the score at halftime was 13-12.
In last weekend's semi the Steelers were trailing 20-6 before the break and eventually won, 48-23.
In both of those games, Counties didn't follow their game plan in the first half or back their natural instincts and the biggest danger for them tonight is if this happens again.
"We can't get away from our natural game," said Umaga.
"Our game plan is simple, we back the skills we have and when we try to do something different we get into trouble, so we've got to remind them of that."
Otago: Ben Smith, Marshall Suckling, Tamati Ellison, Glenn Dickson, Buxton Popoali'i, Hayden Parker, Fumiaki Tanaka; Gareth Evans, Lee Allan, Adam Thomson, Rob Verbakel, Jackson Hemopo, Tama Tuirirangi, Liam Coltman, Aki Seiuli. Reserves: Shota Horie, Jacob Ellison, Adam Hill, T J Ioane, Peter Breen, Jayden Spence, Tony Ensor.
Counties-Manukau: Tim Nanai-Williams, Tony Pulu, Rey Lee-Lo, Bundee Aki, Sherwin Stowers, Baden Kerr, August Pulu; Jimmy Tupou, D J Forbes (captain), Mark Selwyn, Daniel Adongo, Ronald Raaymakers, Matt Talaese, Mahonri Schwalger, Simon Lemalu. Reserves: Suliasi Taufalele, Maka Tatafu, Sikeli Nabou, Maama Vaipulu, David Bason, Kane Hancy, Tyrone Lefau.
- Fairfax Media
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