Four Super Rugby players have been named in a 28-strong Taranaki rugby squad to prepare for the first two Ranfurly Shield defences of the year.
Highlanders players Jarrad Hoeata and Kurt Baker have been included, along with Hurricanes players Michael Bent and Jayden Hayward after little game time for their franchises.
The 22 players for Friday's match against King Country in Inglewood will be named tomorrow.
"A couple of players are carrying injuries and it's about managing those niggles," said Taranaki coach Colin Cooper yesterday. "The Super Rugby guys come back into the mix having got through the stand down period required by the Players' Association. They've all had limited playing time."
Cooper said he had been preparing for the first two defences without the Super rugby players.
"They're all keen. They fitted the criteria, so are in for the two games."
It's certainly a boost for the side with King Country likely to offer sterner opposition than many would expect.
"They've got a big scrum and a big lineout," said Cooper. "They beat Whanganui 36-5 (last week in Taihape) and they'll definitely be a challenge for us. They've been training the house down."
Cooper said his players had also been training hard.
"The boys have been training hard for their clubs and once a week with us all season."
In a squad breakdown, Cooper has named six front rowers, three locks, six loose forwards, two halfbacks, two first five-eighths, three midfielders including Willie Rickards, named captain, three wingers and three fullbacks.
While Bent, Carl Carmichael, Laurence Corlett and Timo Tutavaha all had regular game time last year, props Sione Lea and Willie Ioane have only played four games between them - all off the bench.
Of the locks, Kane Barrett sat out the last season because of injury, Nemia Soqeta returns after two years overseas, with former Bay of Plenty rep Leighton Price getting his chance after a strong club season for Tukapa.
The loose forward mix looks strong, with 2011 New Zealand Colts player Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Hoeata, openside Chris Walker and Blade Thompson, joined by Inglewood's Berny Hall and Mitchell Brown.
Inside backs Kylem O'Donnell, Jamison Gibson-Park, Jack Cameron and former Tasman player James Marshall pick themselves after good club form, with Rickards joined in the centres by Hayward and Tukapa's Isaia Tuifua.
New Zealand sevens rep Waisake Naholo, Inglewood's Avon Lewis and Spotswood United's Seta Tamanivula give Taranaki some pace wide out, with Baker, Frazier Climo and Jackson Ormond named at the back.
"The best going around," was Cooper's assessment of the front rowers. "The locks are new. Leighton played ITM Cup for Bay of Plenty. He's not a beanpole, but he's very skilled and has been playing consistently well for Tukapa. Nemia's been there before and Kane has impressed all season."
Cooper said the loose forwards had all had strong club seasons.
"Heiden, Chris, Mitchell and Berny were the form loosies in the club competition. Berny has played ITM Cup for Canterbury. Heiden can play 6, 7 or 8. He's smart and has come on bigtime this year.
"Mitchell is the future, he's a very good player."
Cooper said O'Donnell and Gibson-Park were in behind Tyson Keats last year and get their chance with Brett Goodin out injured.
"Jack and James are different 10s. Jack is kicking well, the best in the province.
"James is more a ball runner, he attacks the line well."
Of the midfielders and wingers, Cooper said Lewis and Tamanivula had both earned their spots after strong club play.
"Avon has been rewarded for playing consistently well for Inglewood on the wing or at centre. He's quick.
"Seta is a big boy, he's only 19 . . . he's the future, like Mitchell."
Friday's game at TET Stadium in Inglewood kicks off at 2.05pm.
HOW THEY LINE UP
The Taranaki squad for the first two Ranfurly Shield defences, against King Country (Friday, 2.05pm in Inglewood) and Whanganui (Saturday, August 4, 2.05pm in New Plymouth): Front row: Carl Carmichael, Sione Lea, Timo Tutavaha, Laurence Corlett, Willie Ioane, Michael Bent. Locks: Leighton Price, Nemia Soqeta, Kane Barrett. Loose forwards: Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Berny Hall, Chris Walker, Mitchell Brown, Blade Thomson, Jarrad Hoeata. Halfbacks: Kylem O'Donnell, Jamison Gibson-Park. First five-eighths: Jack Cameron, James Marshall. Midfielders: Isaia Tuifua, Willie Rickards (captain), Jayden Hayward. Wingers: Avon Lewis, Seta Tamanivalu, Waisake Naholo. Fullbacks: Frazier Climo, Jackson Ormond, Kurt Baker
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