Waikato rely on Canterbury favour to stand any chance of avoiding relegation
Waikato rely on Canterbury beating Auckland at Eden Park on Friday to have any chance of avoiding relegation to the Mitre 10 Cup championship.
The Mooloos face Bay of Plenty in Tauranga on Saturday hoping their fate is back in their hands, where a win - providing Auckland lose - would keep them in the premiership.
Not since 1986 have Waikato played in the second tier of the provincial structure and losing a province record of six straight matches has left the Mooloos in this bleak position.
Last Sunday's gut-wrenching 13-11 defeat to North Harbour - courtesy of Ben Volavola's dramatic last-gasp penalty - meant Waikato remained bottom of the premiership ahead of the week's final round of regular-season fixtures.
The Mooloos (on 15 points) can only leapfrog Auckland, who sit sixth on 17 points, to escape the championship's trap door.
Waikato will be relegated if Auckland beat Canterbury.
Zac Guildford is back after missing the last three weeks with a hamstring injury and said confidence was still there despite Waikato collecting just one competition point since September 3.
"The boys are staying relatively positive, but at the same time we're pretty disappointed at how the last month or so has been," he said.
"There's been a big focus on ourselves and what we need to do to win the game this weekend."
"There's a bit of edge floating around the environment and the boys are eager to put on a good performance."
Canterbury did Waikato no favours in last year's final round when the Mooloos were trying to sneak into the premiership semi-finals ahead of Counties Manukau or Tasman.
Waikato did their part, securing a 28-24 bonus point victory in Wellington, but Canterbury suffered their first defeat to Counties in 18 years, losing 33-21 in Pukekohe, as the Steelers and Tasman, who thrashed Southland 56-0, secured the final two available semi-final spots.
But Canterbury were already assured of top spot in 2016 - and rested key players - when they faced Counties and travel to Auckland on Friday needing a point to confirm a home semi-final against either North Harbour or Tasman.
Auckland's record against Canterbury isn't flash either. Canterbury have won 11 of their last 12 meetings and have a point to prove after losing the Ranfurly Shield to Taranaki last Friday.
Waikato will have never cheered as loud for any Canterbury side as they will on Friday night.
But the Mooloos can only focus on beating Bay of Plenty, who need a win themselves to secure a championship semi-final place.
Waikato also have to address the issues which have led to sixth successive defeats after winning two of their opening three matches in this campaign.
"We haven't been good enough at critical times. We're trying really hard to get it right at those times," Waikato coach Sean Botherway said.
"In this competition, pressure builds really quickly. Sometimes the harder you try, the harder it gets.
"There's never ever been a lack of effort. These boys are trying their best. We're all trying our best."
Sam Caird will start his first Waikato game at lock as young Laghlan McWhannell is promoted to the bench.
Sam Christie returns at first five-eighth in place of Matty Lansdown, who drops to the bench where regular hooker Hame Faiva (ankle problem) is bracketed with Sekope Lopeti.
AT A GLANCE:
What: Bay of Plenty v Waikato
Where, when: Tauranga Domain, Tauranga on Saturday at 2:35pm
Bay of Plenty: (Announced on Friday)
Waikato: Tyler Campbell, Zac Guildford, Pita Ahki, Tevita Taufui, Sevu Reece, Sam Christie, Harrison Levien; Jordan Manihera, Mitch Jacobson, Luke Jacobson, James Tucker (c), Sam Caird, Atu Moli, Samisoni Taukei'aho, Ayden Johnstone. Reserves: Hame Faiva/Sekope Lopeti, Loni Uhila, Sefo Kautai, Laghlan McWhannell, Adam Burn, Pele Cowley, Matty Lansdown, Bailyn Sullivan.