Old heads key to provinces' NPC title hopes

EXPERIENCE: Veteran Taranaki coach Colin Cooper has assembled the most experienced squad in either division.
EXPERIENCE: Veteran Taranaki coach Colin Cooper has assembled the most experienced squad in either division.

Experience. It's likely to count for a lot in this year's national provincial rugby competition.

While a lot of focus is on the exciting talent that is not just being drip fed but poured into this year's competition, the teams likely to succeed will be those with old heads in key positions.

Step up Canterbury and Taranaki in the premier division.

Canterbury, the four-time defending champions, might lose their normal high number of frontline players to the All Blacks but the quality left makes them deserving favourites.

Players such as Corey Flynn, Nasi Manu, Matt Todd and George Whitelock give their pack a tough edge, while new coach Tabai Matson can call on Andy Ellis, Robbie Fruean, Ryan Crotty, Tyler Bleyendaal and Tom Taylor in a backline that would be the envy of many teams.

They also have the experience of playing in and winning the past four finals, something that should never be underestimated.

Veteran Taranaki coach Colin Cooper has assembled the most experienced squad in either division.

While the loss of former Samoa captain Mahonri Schwalger will be felt considerably, Cooper can call on veteran hooker Laurence Corlett to fill the void.

Chiefs prop Shane Cleaver's uncertain playing future because of ongoing concussion issues has been off-set by the arrival of veteran Highlanders prop Chris King, who was contemplating a domestic season on the sidelines after Southland could not afford his services.

King is likely to team up with Ireland-bound prop Michael Bent, who was surprisingly used sparingly by Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett during the Super Rugby season.

It's in the second row where Taranaki look better served than their opposition, with Cooper able to call on the Hurricanes pair of Jason Eaton and James Broadhurst, while Chiefs captain Craig Clarke will be available when he recovers from his knee injury.

Throw in former All Black Jarrad Hoeata, who could also be used on the blindside or No 8, as well as Kane Barrett, and Cooper is not short of quality ball winners.

Another former All Black, openside flanker Scott Waldrom, should be itching to get into some quality rugby after just a few cameo appearances for the Chiefs.

The departure of Tyson Keats to Italy has seen Cooper bring in Hurricanes halfback Chris Smylie, who will be tasked with providing All Blacks pivot Beauden Barrett with quick ball.

Despite being only 21, Barrett holds one of the keys to Taranaki's fortunes as they try to break into their first NPC final and hold on to the Ranfurly Shield against a list of challengers who will all pose different problems.

If Taranaki can defend the Shield against Tasman and Hawke's Bay, then a date with Canterbury on September 15 looms as season-defining.

Outside Barrett, Cooper will be looking to the likes of Jayden Hayward, Kurt Baker and Andre Taylor to rack up tries, something Taranaki struggled with in 2011, securing only two four-try bonus points - which eventually cost them a spot in the final.

Auckland, champions a record 15 times, will be keen to improve on last year's disappointing campaign, which at one point saw them close to being relegated to the championship.

Coach Wayne Pivac, who returns after winning three titles through 1999-2003, has a host of former New Zealand under-20 stars to mix with experienced campaigners such as skipper Daniel Braid, Alby Mathewson, Brad Mika and Peter Saili.

Just how quickly Pivac can gel his players into a team will be interesting, as will the progress of some of New Zealand's brightest talent.

As with Auckland, Wellington will want to prove their below-par 2011 campaign was a one-off.

New coach Chris Boyd has enough game breakers in his squad to provide every opposition with problems. His biggest issue is finding a formula to bring consistency to the capital, something Wellington have struggled with the past two seasons after being beaten finalists from 2006-2009.

Bay of Plenty were just a win away from making the final last year after starting the competition with a string of impressive performances.

Kevin Schuler, another coach returning after several years away, has ample talent in the forwards, especially the loose variety, while Chris Noakes will have several under-rated attackers outside him when he takes control from first five-eighth.

Beaten finalists for the past two seasons, Waikato have had an interrupted pre-season bringing Chiefs players back into the fold.

Third-term coach Chris Gibbes might suffer through the loss of Stephen Donald, Toby Lyn, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Nathan White but it's hard to write off any team from Waikato at the moment, such has been their roll of success.

Hawke's Bay coach Craig Philpott has not been shy in predicting Ranfurly Shield success when the Magpies challenge Taranaki on September 7, going as far as to predict a bumper victory parade on their return to Napier.

He has, however, been a bit more cautious when appraising his side's chances in the premiership, saying it would be a case of "one game at a time" for his squad. Still, with the likes of Richard Buckman, Hika Elliot, Zac Guildford and Chris Eaton in their ranks, the Bay will prove tough for any side, especially at home.

The championship division looks equally as close, with Counties-Manukau a dark horse after an impressive pre-season under the guidance of new coach Tana Umaga.

Manawatu might struggle to repeat their run to the final last year, while Southland's money woes sees them short of fire power in several positions.

Yet another new coach, Tony Brown, might have to scramble a squad together off the whiff of empty Speight's cans, but he does still have a splattering of loyal Otago men to pull on their famous jersey.

That leaves Northland, North Harbour and Tasman - three teams that have under-achieved recently.

Taranaki Daily News