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Mitre 10 Cup derby round presents opportunity for fans to scout their Super Rugby side's upcoming talent

By Alex McLeod

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With the announcement of the 2021 Super Rugby squads set for December 1, opportunities for Kiwi rugby fans to catch a glimpse of their franchise’s next wave of talent is slimming by the week.

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In fact, this weekend acts as the penultimate round of the Mitre 10 Cup regular season before the play-offs start.

That leaves punters across New Zealand just two weekends to watch all 14 teams and survey the nationwide talent that could feature in next year’s Super Rugby campaign for any of the five franchises.

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Through this weekend’s derby round, though, Super Rugby fans have the perfect chance to assess which players could make the step up to their respective franchises as neighbouring provinces go head-to-head in each franchise’s catchment region.

It all started on Friday, when the two major provinces that make up the Highlanders did battle in the deep south, with hosts Southland upsetting Otago with a 32-15 win in Invercargill to reclaim the Donald Stuart Memorial Trophy.

The Stags’ victory was their first against the Golden O on home soil in a decade, with Southland captain Tony Lamborn playing a starring role.

Vigorous on defence and committed throughout the contest, one would imagine the Blues would be eager to keep the USA Eagles loose forward on hand next year given how well he has led this lowly Southland side in 2020.

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He would certainly add experience, depth and leadership to one of the best back-row contingents in the competition, one that already features Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papalii, Dillon Hunt, Blake Gibson and Tom Robinson.

On the flip side of the coin, Otago star and one-test All Blacks playmaker Josh Ioane had an evening to forget.

Playing a vital role in his side’s demise, the 25-year-old missed 11 points from the boot, threw an costly intercept leading to a try, had a try ruled due to a forward pass thrown to Vilimoni Koroi and misplaced a couple of kicks from hand.

Highlanders fans will be hoping he’ll be able to reassert himself as the country’s third best first-five throughout the remainder of the Mitre 10 Cup before reporting for Super Rugby duty by the end of the year.

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Regardless, the match was a spectacle that few would have thought Southland was capable of putting on, and it set the tone for what’s bound to be a weekend filled with provincial battles where local bragging rights are set to go on the line.

It all continues on Saturday, with Premiership leaders Auckland hosting Championship hopeful Northland at Eden Park.

Both regions are proudly affiliated to the Blues, but it’s hard to look past Auckland from surging away with a comfortable victory in this clash given how they’ve performed thus far.

With six wins from eight outings, the Aucklanders have toppled some admirable foe already this year, with some of their most notable wins coming against the likes of Otago, Manawatu, Tasman and Waikato.

The disappointment of defeat in the Battle of the Bridge against cross-town rivals North Harbour a fortnight ago is also something Alama Ieremia’s side won’t want to endure again, so expect them to impose themselves on the Taniwha.

In AJ Lam and Salesi Rayasi, the province boasts two of the most in-form wings in the Mitre 10 Cup, while the inclusion of discarded All Blacks prop Angus Ta’avao is a considerable boost.

Keep an eye out for rookie flanker Niko Jones, son of All Blacks great Sir Michael Jones, who has been earmarked for great things after standing out at schoolboy level and having trained with the Blues and All Blacks Sevens in recent times.

As for Northland, they’ll have to rely on provincial stalwart Rene Ranger, Blues halfback Sam Nock and lock Josh Goodhue, brother of All Blacks midfielder Jack, to provide much of the impetus that will be required to notch a shock win.

Following that, North Harbour will host Counties Manukau on the other side of the Harbour Bridge at QBE Stadium in Albany in what is technically a cross-town clash, despite both teams representing different Super Rugby sides.

Based out of Pukekohe, based within the Auckland region, Counties Manukau are tied to the Chiefs while North Harbour’s allegiance lies with the Blues.

It would be safe to assume scouts from both franchises will be invested in this clash, which Harbour will be considered favourites for.

Headlined by Super Rugby regulars such as Dillon Hunt, Bryn Gatland and Bryn Hall, it’s some of the less-heralded figures who have caught the eye in 2020.

Young midfielder James Little has been among those, as has wing Jared Page, who was signed with the Blues this year but didn’t manage to take to the field.

Both players will be called into action against a Counties side that has the dangerous Etene Nanai-Seturo starting at fullback, as well as Samoa flanker Alamanda Motuga, who has proven himself to be a try-scoring machine.

The evening match sees the two Crusaders provinces pitted against each other, although both are enjoying vastly different campaigns at present.

Reigning Mitre 10 Cup champions Tasman will host Premiership cellar-dwellers Canterbury in Blenheim in a fixture that could be crucial to the latter’s survival in provincial rugby’s top flight.

Experienced campaigners like Luke Romano, Mitchell Drummond and Josh McKay will have to step up and deliver if they’re to pick up a season-saving victory over the Mako, as will impressive youngsters Tom Christie and new Blues lock Sam Darry.

Tasman will have other plans, though, and might present too difficult a challenge to overcome with a starting lineup that features just one player void of Super Rugby experience.

Through fullback David Havili, pivot Mitch Hunt, powerhouse wing Leicester Fainga’anuku, livewire flanker Sione Havili and big hooker Andrew Makalio, there is class across the entire Tasman starting XV that should have Crusaders fans salivating for 2021.

Moving to Sunday, and Hurricanes rivals Wellington and Hawke’s Bay will square off in Napier as the Ranfurly Shield goes on the line for the sixth time this year.

The Lions could become the fifth team to get their mitts on the historic silverware this season after it has already gone through the hands of Canterbury, Taranaki and Otago.

If that’s to be the case, the efforts of former All Blacks pair Julian Savea and Vaea Fifita will be integral to their Shield challenge, while their Hurricanes teammates Wes Goosen, Alex Fidow and Vince Aso will be just as important.

The Magpies, however, will be eager to ensure they stow the Log o’ Wood away for the summer, and with a revitalised Lolagi Visinia, exciting halfback Folau Fakatava and inspirational leader Ash Dixon at the helm, that seems a likely prospect.

While that games is being played, Chiefs affiliates Waikato and Bay of Plenty will take the field in Hamilton as the race for a semi-final berth intensifies.

A number of young guns have been influential for both teams this season, and it wouldn’t surprise to see someone like Xavier Roe or Kaleb Trask play a starring role for their respective teams at FMG Stadium Waikato.

Rounding out the weekend are central North Island neighbours Manawatu, looking to add to the sole victory they picked up against Southland last weekend, and Taranaki, the Bulls eager to cement a place in the Championship top four.

For the Bulls to do that, a bonus-point win will be required in Fielding, a feat that is that much more attainable thanks to the injury-enforced absence of the host’s star halfback Jamie Booth.

It’ll be up the likes of Stephen Perofeta, Lachlan Boshier and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, then, to inflict the damage on the Turbos.

Don’t expect the home side to die wondering, though, especially with Nehe Milner-Skudder and Michael Alaalatoa in their ranks.

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Mitre 10 Cup derby round presents opportunity for fans to scout their Super Rugby side's upcoming talent

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