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Manawatu rugby officials are confident of attracting a crowd of 10,000 for the "home" match between the Highlanders and Bulls and say Palmerston North people are getting behind the southerners.
The Highlanders are playing their home game at Palmerston North this Saturday, and will face the table-topping Bulls at FMG stadium. It is the first time in New Zealand that any Super 14 franchise has played a home game outside its district.
When the venue was announced last year, Manawatu rugby executives said they hoped to sell out the ground, which has a capacity of 14,000, but they have pulled back from that, saying yesterday they would be happy to attract 10,000.
Manawatu Rugby Union chief executive John Knowles yesterday said about 3000 tickets had been sold.
"But we have found with most of our games in past years we get a good walk-up crowd. People these days don't buy their tickets [until] the last three or four days or just wait until the day of the game," he said.
Knowles said the union had been blitzing the area with promotions and advertising and doing special deals at Massey University, where students had shown strong interest in the match.
Knowles declined to say how much the union was paying the Highlanders franchise to host the game but said if the game drew a crowd of 10,000 he was confident the union would make a reasonable profit. Though he did not say, the risk appears to lie with the union, which will give the Highlanders an agreed fee.
"The majority of the money we bring in will go back to the Highlanders franchise."
The Highlanders arrive in Palmerston North late tonight and will visit schools tomorrow and take part in a promotion at a city tavern tomorrow night.
The city last hosted a Super 14 game in March 2007, when the Hurricanes lost to the Stormers on a wet night.
"This is a big deal for us. We want to send a clear message to the New Zealand Rugby Union that they can play these games away from the main regions and something like this concept can work," Knowles said.
Knowles said Palmerston North rugby fans could relate to the Highlanders with the likes of Manawatu back Johnny Leota and former Manawatu lock Hayden Triggs, who signed for Otago from Manawatu last year, in the squad.
Highlanders coach Glenn Moore had earlier said the side would embrace playing a home game in Palmerston North, and he did not see the extra travel as a hindrance.
Highlanders backs Jason Shoemark and Daniel Bowden will be available for the game, having recovered from injuries sustained in last week's win over the Cheetahs.
Both came through contact sessions yesterday. Bowden injured his back last week, while Shoemark rolled an ankle.
The Bulls are training in Wellington and will not travel to Palmerston North until Friday.
The Bulls have not lost a game in the competition, and will fancy their chances against the Highlanders, sitting in eighth place on the table.