Finalists face off in season opener
Tasman set to kick off ITM Cup campaignPETER JONES
Tasman and Hawke's Bay produced arguably the most memorable match of the 2013 national rugby championship - on Sunday they have a chance to do it all over again in Blenheim.
A scheduling quirk has thrown last year's ITM Cup championship finalists together in the first round of the 2014 season, an early bonus for the Lansdowne Park faithful.
Ten months ago the Makos and Magpies walked out of Nelson's Trafalgar Park after Tasman's nailbiting 26-25 win, with differing emotions.
Tasman were buoyant, looking forward to their first season in the upper echelon of NZ provincial rugby while the Bay boys reflected on a missed opportunity, Ihaia West's errant last-minute conversion attempt fresh in their minds.
There is little doubt that, when the teams run out on Sunday to begin their 2014 campaigns, the pressure will be firmly on Tasman.
After stepping up to the premiership division, success in crossover matches against four opponents from the championship division is vital for the Makos, particularly given the battle they face to claim points off their premiership rivals - Canterbury, Auckland, Counties-Manukau, Taranaki, Waikato and Wellington.
Adding to the pressure is the need to utilise home advantage.
During the past few seasons Tasman have relished knocking "the big guns" off their perch, but this time they are the ones in the gun sights as their championship rivals take aim.
With their superb 2013 season seeing more Makos players being picked up by Super Rugby franchises, the dynamic has changed in the Tasman camp.
Coaches Kieran Keane and Leon MacDonald have had to rapidly integrate players from the professional competition into the Makos mix, in a very limited time span.
"It's a bit like starting from scratch," Keane said yesterday.
"But it's coming together. I guess we will know how well by the end of the week."
The upside of that equation though is the experience the returning Super Rugby players bring and the fact most of last year's squad has been retained.
Captain Shane Christie has enjoyed a breakthrough season at Super Rugby level with the Highlanders, attracting the attention of the All Blacks selectors. No 8 Liam Squire is also making waves nationally after a fine season with the Chiefs.
Joe Wheeler had his best season at lock for the Highlanders, prop Tim Perry impressed despite limited game time at the Crusaders, as did loosie Tevita Kolomatangi at the Chiefs.
The backs suffered mixed fortunes.
Marty Banks, a revelation in 2013, started the season at fullback for the Hurricanes but slipped off the radar. Halfback Billy Guyton's season with the Hurricanes was also limited but the ultra-versatile Tom Marshall enjoyed another fine season for the Chiefs, alongside wing James Lowe.
The powerful Kieron Fonotia played on the wing for the Crusaders in the Super final after an impressive run of form.
Throw former Super Rugby players such as prop Ross Geldenhuys, hooker Quentin MacDonald and the vastly-experienced Jimmy Cowan into the mix and it's easy to see why this Makos side is the most experienced in the fledgling union's history.
But Hawke's Bay aren't short of talent and experience either.
Keane travelled north to check them out in their final buildup match last weekend and was impressed by what he saw. "They've got plenty of players with Super Rugby experience, threats all over the park as usual and a very big pack. We're going to be tested and it's going to be a tough one," he said.
All the Bay backline, except livewire wing Mikey Vuicakau, have played Super Rugby.
Coach Craig Philpott has opted to play the blockbusting Robbie Fruean on the wing, instead of his usual centre position, sticking with the experienced midfield combination of Andrew Horrell and Jason Shoemark.
Halves Chris Eaton and Ihaia West were key figures in the 2013 championship final, West in particular a handful for any defence and a superb goalkicker.
Up front, Hawke's Bay's success has been based on a forward pack of hard workers rather than big names.
Skipper Brendon O'Connor, at openside flanker, enjoyed a top season with the Blues and epitomises their hard-nosed approach, as does No 8 Gareth Evans, a standout with the Highlanders.
Coaches Keane and MacDonald have chosen a powerful Makos team containing all 10 current Super Rugby players, leaning towards those that performed so well for them last year.
The forwards are predictable but there are a couple of surprises among the backs.
Banks has recovered from an injury to be named in the 10 jersey while Lowe will fill the fullback berth, as he did in last year's final.
Makos veteran Robbie Malneek is out of the mix, his place in the reserves taken by rising star David Havili, while Guyton gets the nod at halfback ahead of former All Black Cowan.
Keane yesterday explained the reasoning behind his selections.
"Billy is the incumbent. We've got a new man who has come into the region and is learning our game, our structures. It just made sense to me to have the incumbent starting," he said.
"Jimmy has the ability to close out games as well. There are some real pluses there for us.
"We made a conscious effort to go with the people who played in the  final. It's probably more about familiarity at this stage, people who know how each other plays, rather than injecting new blood.
"Early in the season we feel a little bit underdone so it's better to go with the familiar. It makes life a little bit easier for the players and takes away some of the clutter that exists at the moment."
Keane suggested that the Makos v Magpies rematch at this stage of the season was, "almost like we are going again".
"It's a great derby isn't it. It's like we haven't had a summer in between," he said.
"It will be a great occasion for both teams."
- The Marlborough Express