Jayden Hayward's passion and try-scoring radar make Taranaki a tough prospect, Glenn McLean reports.
There is a striking statistic from Jayden Hayward's time in the Taranaki jersey - he hasn't missed a match since debuting in 2008.
It's fitting then that his 50th match holds such significance, given Taranaki will be defending the Ranfurly Shield against Tasman.
Ironically, it was Tasman the 25-year-old first came up against, although the 33-23 loss was not a result he wants to replicate tomorrow night at Yarrow Stadium.
"It wasn't a good start, was it?" he joked yesterday.
"Originally I got called into the team as a first five-eighth but I started at centre in that first game before they gave me the opportunity to start at second five."
The position has been a natural fit for the Hawera-born player, given his all-round skills, defensive strength and ability to sniff out the tryline.
With 18 tries already to his name, including 10 in 10 consecutive matches through 2010 and 2011, it's easy to see why Hayward has been so popular with his two provincial coaches - Adrian Kennedy and Colin Cooper.
"He's a special player, particularly for this team," Cooper said. "I've just been amazed by his energy and what he brings to every game. He also has a lot of passion for this team and this province and we should all be proud of him."
Cooper has long pinpointed Hayward's support play as one of his key strengths, while the veteran coach has also been impressed by the way his leadership skills have developed, both on and off the field.
His early potential was spotted by the Highlanders, who picked him up on a two-year deal in 2009, only to use him sparingly before cutting him loose a year later.
The southerners' loss was the Hurricanes' gain, as Mark Hammett used him extensively as cover when his midfield copped repeated injuries and suspensions in 2011.
While the opportunities have been leaner at Super level in 2012, Hayward has still looked sharp in Taranaki's two early Ranfurly Shield defences against Heartland Championship sides King Country and Wanganui.
"Every time I pull on the jersey is quite special for me," he said. "I definitely don't take it for granted. This is where I come from and I've always looked up to guys playing for this team."
That fierce loyalty, combined with an extraordinary ability to avoid injuries, means he never wants to be on the sideline, no matter how condensed the NPC schedule.
Winning the shield last season sits atop of his personal highlights in the Taranaki jersey, along with beating Canterbury in the union's 125th jubilee weekend in 2010.
The feeling of lifting the Log o' Wood on an unusually warm Invercargill evening is not something he wants another side to experience any time soon.
"When you get those highs, you've really got to enjoy the moment and we want to keep on enjoying it," he said.
"It's a big occasion, so you want to enjoy it because it's not every day Taranaki has the Ranfurly Shield."
Providing Taranaki can see off Tasman, they will then face challenges from Hawke's Bay and Canterbury in successive weeks, a tough ask for any side in this competition.
Despite the gruelling schedule, Hayward said Taranaki were determined to play positive rugby and not resort to a one-dimensional game.
"Any team that wants to come in here and take the shield from us, they're going to have to grow another arm and leg. It's week by week and we'll empty the tank, give everything we have and then regroup on Monday."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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