Counties steel themselves for Shield challenge
Shield fever will again hit Pukekohe next weekend when Otago come to town for the Steelers' third defence of the year and first of the season.
Having comfortably seen off Thames Valley and South Canterbury, Otago will be a far tougher proposition for Tana Umaga's men, but judging by the fight Counties put up against Taranaki on Thursday night they won't be giving up the Log o' Wood without a struggle.
Their 9-9 draw in New Plymouth in the season-opening game was far from a spectacle of entertaining, flowing rugby, but it showed that the Steelers could compete against a big powerful pack like Taranaki's.
Also, if the weather is better, they might be able to bring their talented backs into play more.
"The score reflected the game, the weather was terrible and we couldn't get our attack started," Counties fullback Sherwin Stowers told Sunday News.
"We were pretty disappointed after the game, knowing that we could have come away with the win, especially against a quality Taranaki team.
"The conditions were probably the worst I've ever played in, so for us to come away with a draw was a hollow feeling."
Counties will be able to welcome back Tim Nanai-Williams to the team this week. He missed all of last year's historic season through injury, and was absent from the Taranaki game because his partner gave birth to a boy a few days ago.
There will be that same excitement and buzz in the province this week ahead of the game, and no doubt a bumper crowd will turn up on Saturday afternoon.
Counties' three home defences last season after they took the Shield from Hawke's Bay were all memorable occasions for the long-suffering fans, and there should be a similar atmosphere at Growers Stadium this weekend.
"The intensity of the week always goes up when we've got a Shield game going on the experience from last year," Stowers said.
"We have to rebuild from the Taranaki game and what was good about it was that it gave us a gauge of where we're at as a team, and how we can move forward."
Key for Counties in Shield defences this year will be a settled side. Last year's captain, Fritz Lee, has departed to Japan, but the core of their squad remains.
"We haven't really lost many players," Stowers said.
"Fritz was a massive part of our team last season in terms of the physicality side of things. But we've recruited well with Pauliasi Manu and Jordan Taufua. We have an all-star backline, so for us, it's trying to gel as a team moving forward."