Semi-final one: Canterbury (1) v Hawke's Bay (4), 7:35pm on Friday in Christchurch
Head-to-Head: Played 52 - Canterbury 29, Hawke's Bay 21, drawn
Last Match: Canterbury beat Hawke's Bay 27-20 (Rd 12, 2009)
Last Season: Canterbury beat Hawke's Bay 31-21 in Christchurch
TAB: Canterbury $1.65, Hawke's Bay $2.15
They say you have to lose one before you win one, but this Hawke's Bay side has now lost two semi-finals in consecutive years and if they were ever going to crack into a final, this is their chance.
Magpies captain Jason Shoemark, the renegade centre turned inspirational leader, made a telling remark this week that indicated the tide had shifted on the East Coast of the North Island.
"I think in the last few years we've just been happy to make the semi-finals but now we want to push on and want to make the final," he told ONE News.
And they know they can do it. Rewind two weeks and this cohesive Hawke's Bay unit very nearly topped a Canterbury side that was All Black packed but now, with Carter, McCaw and company immersed in the land of the Samurai, a largely young side with egos bruised await the Magpies in Christchurch.
Indeed the Shield defeat to Southland has the potential to galvanise a Canterbury side that had not lost at home until last Thursday but they still have plenty to prove. The 2008 champions have never once defended their title and another defeat will ultimately represent a failed season for Rob Penney's side.
However, Penney arguably did his side no favours this week with claims that Hawke's Bay play negative rugby. A quick glance at the Air NZ Cup round robin ladder reveals that the Magpies have the best attacking record in the competition and notched the most four-try bonus points to match.
The dig is more likely a reference to the outstanding work of Karl Lowe and Thomas Waldrom at the breakdown and smacks of giving referee Jonathan White a reminder that these two power scavengers push the boundaries of the law.
On this note, it's up to Nasi Manu and George Whitelock, who is recovering from a hip injury, to counter the efficiency of the Bay trio. Other key match-ups include Stephen Brett up against Mathew Berquist and the departing Casey Laulala versus the evergreen Shoemark.
Key: Canterbury may have the big-match experience in the backs but it's in the loose where this contest will be won.
Tip: Hawke's Bay
See what the TVNZ tipsters are picking by
Canterbury: Colin Slade, Sean Maitland, Casey Laulala, Tim Bateman, Tu Umaga-Marshall, Stephen Brett, Tyson Keats, Nasi Manu, George Whitelock (captain), Michael Paterson, Samuel Whitelock, Isaac Ross, Peter Borlase, Ti'i Paulo, Andrew Olorenshaw. Reserves: Steve Fualau, Rodney Ah You, Ash Parker, Matt Todd, Willi Heinz, Ryan Crotty, James Paterson.
Hawke's Bay: Israel Dagg, Nick Thompson, Jason Shoemark (captain), Andrew Horrell, Jason Kupa, Mathew Berquist, Chris Eaton, Thomas Waldrom, Karl Lowe, Michael Johnson, Ross Kennedy, George Naoupu, Clint Newland, Hika Elliot, Sona Taumalolo. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Josh Keys, Adam Bradey, Matt Egan, Dane Shelford, Aayden Clarke, Richard Buckman.
Semi-final two: Wellington v Southland, 7:35pm on Saturday in Wellington
Head-to-Head: Played 90 - Wellington 59, Southland 24, drawn
Last match: Wellington beat Southland 32-13 in Wellington (Rd 7, 2008)
Last Season: Wellington beat Southland 28-19 in Wellington
TAB: Wellington $1.45, Southland $2.65
The Shield hangover remains Southland's single biggest enemy as they enter their semi-final showdown in Wellington on Saturday night.
The Stags may claim they have been off the lash since Saturday but you can't help but think that one significant achievement is their season's course.
However a Hawke's Bay victory over Canterbury on Friday night does open up a prospect of a final in Invercargill which could be just the incentive to tip the balance the visitors' way.
But Wellington of course has even more motivation. This is a side that is the perpetual bridesmaid of New Zealand rugby. Three finals in three years and no championship since 2000 represents a choke factor that even the All Blacks couldn't relate too.
However they must get past the semi-final first and it's fair to say, in recent times, that Wellington has the wood over the Southerners. Since the Air NZ Cups inception in 2006 the Stags have fallen to the Lions on four occasions, including last year's 28-19 defeat in the identical semi-final fixture.
In their last encounter Southland travelled up to the capital on top of the Air NZ Cup ladder with bold plans to lay down their title credentials but on a wet and windy Wellington evening they came unstuck as they tried to give the ball air. Indeed by attempting to match Wellington's high-octane approach, Southland played into the home side's hands.
This time Southland need to revert to the 10-man rugby that successfully suffocated Canterbury last week and use their defence, the best in the country, as an offensive weapon. It might not be pretty but Southland's strength is where the capital side look vulnerable.
The locking crisis in the Lions camp remains and captain and prop Jacob Ellison has to continue to fill this void, while in another significant reshuffle, Piri Weepu has again been asked to play at first five-eight. His combination with Alby Mathewson will be pivotal as they look to unleash the likes of Hosea Gear and David Smith.
Meanwhile Southland has made just one change with Hua Tamariki coming in to number eight for the injured David Hall.
Key: Defence. Does Wellington have the gas and the creativity to break the Southland line?
See what the TVNZ tipsters are picking by CLICKING HERE
Wellington: Apoua Stewart, David Smith, Alapati Leuia, Shaun Treeby, Hosea Gear, Piri Weepu, Alby Mathewson, Mathew Luamanu, Serge Lilo, Victor Vito, Daniel Ramsay, Jacob Ellison (captain), Anthony Perenise, Ged Robinson, John Schwalger. Reserves: Dane Coles, Arden David-Perrot, Mark Reddish, Scott Fuglistaller, Fa'atonu Fili, Robert Fruean, Daniel Kirkpatrick
Southland: Glen Horton, Matt Saunders, Kenny Lynn, Jason Kawau, Tony Koonwaiyou, Robbie Robinson, Scott Cowan, Hua Tamariki, Tim Boys, John Hardie, Joe Tuineau, Josh Beckhuis, Chris King, Jason Rutledge, Jamie Mackintosh (captain). Reserves: Brayden Mitchell, Fai Mika, Dave Gannon, Dion Bates, Sonny Rangitoheriri, Seminar Manu, James Wilson