Testing times looming
The Tasman Makos begin their version of the eight-week ITM Cup sprint in Whangarei tomorrow.
It's Rugby World Cup year, which means a condensed national provincial championship and a lot of added pressure on players' minds and bodies.
Tasman aren't looking past Northland at Whangarei's Toll Stadium tomorrow, despite heading back north for Tuesday's clash with North Harbour at Albany ahead of the following Sunday's home game against Counties Manukau at Blenheim's Lansdowne Park.
But like every other team in this season's competition, Tasman will be relying on their experienced heads to provide some critical guidance, and as head coach Kieran Keane confirmed, it's already meant a hectic start to their campaign.
"It's been frenetic," said Keane. "We're trying to introduce Super Rugby players and new blood and reinvigorate the old blood. It's been full on.
"We've just got to hope that everyone else is in the same boat.
"We'll show improvement as the season progresses, I'm sure of that, so I just hope that we're not too underdone, because we are underdone. We've had nine days to prepare." Always wary of Northland's potent attacking threats, Keane has opted for a predictably seasoned lineup, including the return of midfielder and captain Andrew Goodman and No 8 Mark Bright, who were both missing from last year's campaign.
"Having those players back has been great," said Keane. "They've both fitted in like they've never been away and they're both champing at the bit and taking on the leadership roles they've been given."
It's also meant a start for James Marshall at first five-eighth ahead of the Nelson Bays club season's leading points scorer, Marist's James Proctor, as Keane and his assistant, Leon MacDonald, look to provide some continuity with last season's squad.
"We've seen a lot of improvement in James Marshall in terms of his kicking game. He's an excellent communicator as well, you know, he's become much better there.
"At this stage, we're pretty happy with the way James has developed."
There are only three newcomers to the starting lineup as pacey Canterbury wing, Willie McGoon, centre Kieron Fonotia and lock Riki Hoeata prepare to make their Tasman debuts.
"We think we're quite well balanced in terms of backs and forwards, but we are smaller than most and we will be looking for a bit more mobility and we have a bit of skill across the ground – probably a little bit more than last year," said Keane. "I think we've made some improvements in that regard."
Crusaders players, flanker Jonathan Poff and hooker Quentin MacDonald are both named in the side although MacDonald will start off the bench.
Crusaders fullback, Tom Marshall, had a scan on a troublesome knee on Tuesday, which revealed no significant damage, but is being rested this weekend.
"He's a bit beaten up," said Keane. "I think both mentally and physically ... it would be wise to give him a rest. He's not coming with us."
While McGoon provides genuine pace on the left wing, there are niggling injuries to the squad's other two specialist wings, Lucky Mulipola and Mitchell Scott.
Because of his greater experience, Mulipola is likely to get the nod over New Zealand under-20 wing Scott if Mulipola can shake off his foot tendon strain in time.
It's an unusually demanding season and Keane said the team had to adjust.
"You've got to start somewhere and while going on tour with a very limited buildup is not ideal, I think that if we perform well and do our best, we could come away with a plus from being on tour together."
Tomorrow's game kicks off at Toll Stadium in Whangarei at 5.35pm.
TASMAN MAKOS: Robbie Malneek, Lucky Mulipola or Mitchell Scott, Kieron Fonotia, Andrew Goodman (captain), Willie McGoon, James Marshall, Steve Alfeld, Mark Bright, Shane Christie, Jonathan Poff, Joe Wheeler, Riki Hoeata, Fai Mika, Francis Smith, Sam Prattley. Substitutes: Quentin MacDonald, Craig Moore, Pablo Huete, Liam Squire, Shawn Begg, James Proctor, Scott or Jack Umaga, James Hadfield.
NORTHLAND TANIWHA (from): Aaron Bancroft, Mark Burman, Rhyan Caine, Derek Carpenter, Justin Davies, Tim Dow, Warren Dunn, Cameron Eyre, Daniel Faleafa, Cameron Goodhue, Bryce Heem, Daniel Mason, Joel McKenty, Jack McPhee, Whiria Meltzer, Ash Moeke, Simon Munro, Lachie Munro, Wayne Ngaluafe, Jared Payne, Daniel Pryor, Rene Ranger, Sonatane Takulua, Tevita Vaipulu, Martin Veale, Scott Vessey, Matthew Wallis, Bryce Williams, Ross Wright.
The Nelson Mail