Captain Brad Shields and All Black Vaea Fifita will return to the Wellington Lions for their final Mitre 10 Cup regular season match of 2017 at Westpac Stadium on Thursday.
Shields re-claims the captaincy after missing the past four weeks due to a knee injury picked up during Wellington’s sole loss of the season against Tasman in Blenheim on September 10.
He will start at No.8 against Northland alongside Fifita, who has been released from the All Blacks for what will be his second appearance for the Lions at blindside this season.
Fifita played for Wellington in round three against Bay of Plenty, but has been involved with the All Blacks Rugby Championship campaign since.
He replaces Galu Taufale, who captained Wellington to a 61-12 win over Southland in Invercargill on Saturday, but is unavailable this week due to a bruised knee.
Vaea Fifita training with the All Blacks. PHOTO: Getty Sport
Wellington head coach Chris Gibbes continues to manage his full squad against Northland and has made 11 changes to the team that started against Southland.
Seven of those changes are in the pack where Shields, Fifita and openside Mateaki Kafatolu form an all-new loose trio.
Similarly there is a refreshed second row where James Blackwell and Sam Lousi replace Will Mangos and Chris Middleton. Blackwell is back after four weeks on the sideline due to a shoulder injury suffered against Canterbury.
Alex Fidow will return to the starting side against Northland. PHOTO: Getty Sport
In the front row Alex Fidow returns at tighthead prop for Joe Apikotoa, while Sitiveni Paongo starts at hooker, switching roles with Asafo Aumua, who will come off the bench.
The return of wings Julian Savea and Ben Lam from a rest week, and Wes Goosen’s first start since injuring a rib against Tasman, are the features of a revamped backline.
Savea and Lam come back in for Malo Tuitama and Losi Filipo respectively, Goosen replaces Billy Proctor at centre, and Kemara Hauiti-Parapara comes in at halfback for Sheridan Rangihuna.
Ben Lam is back to play Northland. PHOTO: Getty Sport
In the reserves, young halfback Carlos Price is set for his second appearance of the season after coming off the bench for his debut against Bay of Plenty in Rotorua.
Wellington leads the Mitre 10 Cup Championship ladder and has secured a home semifinal, while Northland are in second place and one of four teams still in the hunt for the remaining three places in the playoffs.
“We expect a highly motivated Northland team and a tough match,” Gibbes said. “We aren’t even thinking about the semifinals, that’s for next week. This is a home match and it’s important that we go out and put in a performance we can be proud of.”
Lions head coach Chris Gibbes: PHOTO: Getty Sport
Recent history suggests a close contest. Wellington edged Northland 29-21 in Whangarei last season and, although the Lions won convincingly (29-0) at Westpac Stadium in 2015, they were on the end of a 35-5 thrashing in Northland in 2014.
The Wellington Lions team to play Northland at Westpac Stadium in Wellington on Thursday, October 12 is:
15 Trent Renata (Oriental-Rongotai)
14 Julian Savea (Oriental-Rongotai)
13 Wes Goosen (Old Boys University)
12 Thomas Umaga-Jensen (Wainuiomata)
11 Ben Lam (Tawa)
10 Jackson Garden-Bachop (Northern United)
9 Kemara Hauiti-Parapara (Tawa)
8 Brad Shields (Petone) (c)
7 Mateaki Kafatolu (Petone)
6 Vaea Fifita (Wellington)
5 James Blackwell (Petone)
4 Sam Lousi (Marist St Pats)
3 Alex Fidow (Oriental-Rongotai)
2 Sitiveni Paongo (Tawa)
1 Tolu Fahamokioa (Tawa)
Reserves: Asafo Aumua (Avalon), Vince Sakaria (Marist St Pats), Joe Apikotoa (Hutt Old Boys Marist), Will Mangos (Old Boys University), James Tuiatua (Marist St Pats), Carlos Price (Petone), Regan Verney (Old Boys University), Malo Tuitama (Oriental-Rongotai).