More All Blacks return to their provinces as the national provincial rugby championship reaches its cut-throat stage this weekend — and for powerhouses at risk of elimination they will be hoping it’s a case of better late than never.
Waikato and Auckland — the inaugural and reigning Air NZ Cup champion — stand to benefit the most from the infusion of international talent, though the test stars’ arrival does not necessarily represent a quick fix.
In recent seasons the belated introduction of All Blacks has not guaranteed domestic success, as Canterbury have discovered.
While welcome from an experience point of view — and an obvious drawcard at the gate — All Blacks do not always make a seamless transition.
Still, at least they are making the right noises.
Richard Kahui, who has not played for Waikato since they won the first new-look final in 2006, said he was looking to “give it heaps” in a must-win 10th round match against seventh-placed Taranaki in Hamilton tomorrow night.
“It’s where you started, and I love playing for Waikato.”
Stephen Donald makes his second appearance of the season while Sitiveni Sivivatu and Sione Lauaki have also been named to confront a Taranaki side bolstered by the return of All Blacks hooker Andrew Hore.
Kahui emphasised the quartet could not be expected to personally ensure Waikato clung onto — or improved — on eighth place.
“It’s not our job to come back here and play Harlem Globetrotter-type football. We will just come back in and do what we need to do and help those young boys grow another leg if we can,” Kahui said, a view backed up by Donald.
“We’ve just tried to fit in and help where we can. None of the guys think they’re a magic solution, we just want to do a job and hopefully the boys will fire around us.”
Whoever wins the round opener at Waikato Stadium will be safe while the loser faces an anxious wait, potentially up to Sunday’s final regular season match between Auckland and Northland at Eden Park.
Only four points cover places six to 10, raising the prospect of plenty of movement before the ladder settles.
Auckland are set to welcome back forwards John Afoa, Jerome Kaino and Keven Mealamu, a trio that would have been useful two rounds ago when the Ranfurly Shield was handed over to Wellington.
The defending champions, currently sixth, appear on track for the quarterfinals but cannot afford to take a Northland side on a two-match winning streak for granted.
Northland, who banked wins either side of learning they will be retained in the competition next year, are a place outside the top eight and need a rare win on Auckland turf to make the cut.
Auckland, meanwhile, will know exactly what is required come kick-off.
Tasman, the other union granted a reprieve by the New Zealand Rugby Union, are 10th on 18 points and require maximum points from cellar-dwelling Manawatu in Saturday’s afternoon match to keep in contention, at least mathematically.
Although the amalgamation between Nelson Bays and Marlborough appears dead in the water, Tasman would have taken great heart from their bold challenge for the Log o’Wood in Wellington last weekend.
A nervy Wellington prevailed by a flattering 26-20 and with the Shield locked up for the summer the unbeaten frontrunners will be looking to reprise their free-flowing play at Carisbrook on Saturday night against an Otago side that has struggled throughout.
Southland will be motivated by the prospect of sneaking a home quarterfinal when they host second-placed Canterbury in Invercargill on Friday night.
Maximum points should be sufficient to relegate the loser of Friday night’s other match between Hawke’s Bay and Bay of Plenty in Napier to an away trip next weekend.
The other match of the round is of little consequence, as Counties-Manukau and North Harbour strive simply to finish disappointing campaigns on a mild high at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday evening.