Waikato’s flying NPC start faces stern challenge

KEY PIVOT: Waikato first five-eighth Damian McKenzie opened his team’s campaign in style with an early try against Wellington. Now he’s looking to mastermind a win over Canterbury tonight.
KEY PIVOT: Waikato first five-eighth Damian McKenzie opened his team’s campaign in style with an early try against Wellington. Now he’s looking to mastermind a win over Canterbury tonight.

He couldn't have asked for a better start from his players last weekend, but Waikato coach Johnny Walters knows they simply have to be better if they are to beat Canterbury tonight.

Waikato's sublime 37-25 win over Wellington in the capital set the bar pretty high for their ITM Cup season, and with Canterbury arriving in Hamilton on the back of a 48-9 hammering of Auckland in Christchurch, it sets the scene tonight for a classic encounter.

If there is one team Waikato would love to beat, Walters acknowledged it was Canterbury.

''Oh definitely. It would certainly give us a lot of belief and a lot of surety in what we're doing,'' he said of downing the six-time champions.

Canterbury have caused the most problems for the Mooloos since the latter entered the first division of the NPC in 1981.

Since 2000, Waikato have lost 11 of the past 15 meetings. The last two have been blowouts - 47-10 last year and 52-27 in 2012.

''They're not six-time ITM Cup champs for nothing. We've prepared for that. You have to be at your very best to beat Canterbury,'' Walters said, adding that the visitors will be pumped up early in this competition.

''A fairly good portion of the Crusaders are playing for Canterbury, and they'd be pretty dirty with that last game [the Super Rugby final] so they'll be looking to sort of resurrect that, so I dare say they'll be using that as motivation.''

Despite describing them as ''clinical'' against Auckland, Walters has found a couple of areas to exploit, but was keeping those in-house.

He knows Canterbury are a smart team and would have done the same scrutinising of his side, so the focus was mainly about just lifting their own performance.

''For us, last week's forgotten now, it's about turning around,'' Walters said, then saying twice for emphasis ''we have to be better this week''.

''We talked, right from the very first meeting we had in February, about being committed to growth and being committed to getting better as a team and individuals. And we're pretty hard on guys that don't do that, and luckily for this group they're all pretty committed to that.''

Winning does wonders for a team. It was the team's day off on Tuesday, but a heap of them were milling around the team base at Waikato Stadium, already eager for game-day.

Walters' selection job was so easy this week that there were no changes in his 22, with second five-eighth Anton Lienert-Brown overcoming his ankle sprain.

Walters said his players had to be rewarded for going to Wellington as underdogs and mentally getting themselves to a point where they had real belief in what they were doing.

A stirring speech early last week from assistant coach Andrew Douglas had riled the team up to believe they were better than what others might think they were.

''We like to be thermometers than temperature gauges, and we sort of measure our own temperature from within,'' Walters said.

Now the team have to find another bout of motivation to kick on with their brilliant start.

With eight players getting their first caps under their belt and disposing of any debut-game nerves, Walters acknowledged that brought expectation.

''They're Waikato players now and are held in good regard in this region, so they've got to make sure that they keep that expectation high and keep those standards up.''

Tonight he wants to see some better discipline on defence, some slicker execution - as he felt they missed some try-scoring opportunities - while having a bit more ball would also be nice.

The loose forward battle against danger-man Matt Todd will be an intriguing one tonight, while the face-off between young first-fives Damian McKenzie and Tyler Bleyendaal should pique interest, together with the battle between the four wingers.

Canterbury made two changes to their side.

They will be without Tom Taylor for several weeks after he suffered a cracked eye socket last weekend. Rob Thompson comes in at second-five, while Jack Goodhue is on the bench. And Chiefs lock Matt Symons will start ahead of Joel Everson.


NPC, Rd 2

Waikato v Canterbury

Waikato Stadium, Hamilton

Tonight, 6.05

Waikato: Albert Nikoro, Declan O'Donnell, Jordan Payne, Anton Lienert-Brown, Joe Webber, Damian McKenzie, Brad Weber (c), Adam Burn, Zak Hohneck, Whetu Douglas, David Morgan, Nick Ross, Ben Tameifuna, Brayden Mitchell, Loni Uhila. Reserves: Hame Faiva, James McGougan, Josh Tyrell, Marty Holah, Harrison Levien, Wharenui Hawera, Shayne Anderson.

Canterbury: Richie Mo'unga, Patrick Osborne, Adam Whitelock, Rob Thompson, Johnny McNicholl, Tyler Bleyendaal, Willi Heinz (c), Luke Whitelock, Jed Brown, Matt Todd, Scott Barrett, Matt Symons, Nepo Laulala, Codie Taylor, Alex Hodgman. Reserves: Ben Funnell, Siate Tokolahi, Joel Everson, Tom Sanders, Mitchell Drummond, Jack Goodhue, Milford Keresoma.

- aaron.goile@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

Waikato Times