Taranaki wary of Turbos challenge
Forget about chasing four-try bonus points; this afternoon's NPC match against Manawatu is all about keeping the Ranfurly Shield for Taranaki.
"We just want to win and we have prepared as such," Taranaki coach Colin Cooper said. "We're not looking at anything else when Lord Ranfurly is at stake. It's just win and then we'll see what happens."
While there will be plenty of people around the country ready to brush off Manawatu's chances of winning the Shield for the first time since they lost it to North Auckland in 1978, a quick study of recent encounters shows little has separated the two sides.
In fact, Taranaki hold a narrow three-two winning margin from their last five encounters, the most recent of which ended in a 15-10 victory to Manawatu.
For some reason, Manawatu manage to draw Taranaki into a scrap up front which usually results in a stop-start game where the ball often gets lost at the breakdown.
"They're tough guys," Cooper said. "Now that we've experienced Shield rugby, we know they're going to bring another 10 per cent on top of what they normally would. They're going to be tough, so it's about us looking after our own ball and shutting down their attack and that's going to come down to how physical we are."
That in mind, it has been no surprise to see Taranaki pay plenty of attention this week to the contact area and blowing guys off the ball.
It's an area they never dominated against Northland a week ago, although they were not helped late in the game by referee Ben Skeen's lack of authority after he had been punishing on his whistle for the first hour of the match.
Taranaki need to start getting quicker ball. While their try scoring statistics have been vastly improved on 2011 - having already scored one more try from four fewer games - you can't help but feel they need to lift their attack a notch or two if they are going to be on the same playing field as Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury come play-off time.
Tenderlink Taranaki captain Craig Clarke knows all too well what sort of style Manawatu will bring, especially with a pack that contains Hamish Gosling, Nick Croswell, Rob Foreman and Grant Polson.
"You're kidding yourself if you think it won't be like that [a scrap] at some stage," he said. "We're ready for it and it might take until the 70th minute to get some ascendancy."
Nevertheless, Clarke felt his side had trained the best they have all season and was obviously hopeful that would transcend to the playing field this afternoon.
Clarke felt if they did improve their ball carrying and their cleanouts, quick ball would come.
"It's an area we really have to get right," he said. "Some of our set piece defence has been a bit leaky and our defence in general, so we have to be better for 80 minutes."
Clarke was also not looking past today, despite Waikato's possible challenge looming large on Wednesday.
"Whatever happens after that [today], happens. We're just going to throw ourselves at the Turbos and see how things are on Sunday because we've got a deep squad to cover for problems."
While the season-ending injury to in-form flanker Scott Waldrom will hurt Taranaki, his absence has been offset by the return of top line outside back Andre Taylor after he has been forced to sit out the last five games after badly breaking his finger against Bay Of Plenty.
Taylor, along with fullback Kurt Baker, line up against their former province, while Reece Robinson does the same for the visitors who also have Taranaki-raised Callum Gibbins in their ranks.
Manawatu had a light training run in Palmerston North yesterday morning before getting on a bus to New Plymouth.
Their coach, Jason O'Halloran, has stressed the importance to his side of starting well at Yarrow Stadium.
"I think we've got a nucleus of experienced guys who won't be over-awed but we have to get into the game early.That will be the key."
Manawatu suffered a heart-breaking 31-28 loss to the high-flying Counties-Manukau side last round after they had led 16-3 at the break.
"They [players] were pretty distraught after the game to be fair but I think we've looked back on the game and have learnt a lot of lessons out of it," O'Halloran said.
"Hopefully, it's given them a big shot of confidence knowing they can compete against one of the form teams in the competition."
As well as starting well, O'Halloran knows the importance of his side bringing a physical approach and high intensity to the game.
"It's hugely important," he said. "I think that's where Taranaki have had it all over the challenges to date, so that's going to be bloody pivotal in that regard. Our senior players up front really have to step up, get stuck in and make sure we get a reasonable platform so we can compete."