Auckland pin hopes on quelling Tasman's hype
Shane Christie's post-match interview was telling. Tasman had just thumped Bay of Plenty 56-27, yet the captain was struggling for positives.
He lamented errors and criticised his side's inability to carry out the game plan. Therein lies an example of Tasman's expectations this season - and the challenge before Auckland today.
In previous years, this would be considered a gimme for a province of Auckland's stature. Not so now.
Punters may be stunned to discover Tasman should at least make the top four of the Premiership this year. After two bonus-point wins which featured frequent flair and counter-attacking brilliance, they've done nothing to quell the hype.
For now it seems they more than belong with the big boys following promotion. Hard to believe that five years ago they were one of four unions threatened with being axed from the competition.
Canterbury are clearly a class above the chasing pack, but their Crusader companions look as likely as anyone to derail their bid for a seventh straight crown.
Sure, it's early days. Already, though, Tasman has the competition on notice. The men from Nelson and Blenheim know this is their chance to shake up the established core.
"I knew from the start, when I saw the teams on paper, Tasman would be one of the contenders," Auckland coach Paul Feeney said.
"They are very well coached. Last year what Kieran Keane got out of them was fantastic. They realise this is a big opportunity for them this season.
"When you think Tasman, you think small province, but almost their whole backline has been involved in Super Rugby. They've got a wealth of experience and guys who bust open games."
Indeed, Christie and Liam Squire are two dynamic loose forwards; sevens star Bryce Heem, Kieron Fonotia, James Lowe, Tom Marshall and Marty Banks form a lethal backline.
Feeney has his own game-breakers in Gareth Anscombe and Ben Lam, but with rain expected, the return of All Blacks Charlie Faumuina and Steven Luatua up front is a major boost, as is the retention of fullback Charles Piutau.
"They know our boys well," said Feeney. "From a confidence point of view it's great to have them back."
After an embarrassing opening-round thrashing from Canterbury, Feeney's men responded by putting away Manawatu last week.
Back on Eden Park, where they are unbeaten over the last two years in 10 matches, and have claimed 48 of 50 possible competition points, they realise the need for further improvement.
"When you get beaten 48-9 you're hurting," Feeney said. "We're a proud province. We went away and we improved in a few areas and we got five points. We need to win this game to get our season on track. Dropping two out of the first three games would not be a good start.
"We love playing on Eden Park. It's our backyard. The boys can't wait to get out there for our first home game."
Sunday Star Times