Captain Craig Clarke has been passed fit for Taranaki's Ranfurly Shield match against Hawke's Bay tomorrow night.
Clarke's inclusion is one of five changes coach Colin Cooper has made to that starting side which hung on to the Shield after a thrilling 49-40 win over Tasman on Saturday.
Gone from the starting XV are former All Black Jarrad Hoeata, fellow flanker Chris Walker, lock James Broadhurst, halfback Jamison Gibson-Park and wing Frazier Climo.
Hoeata has made way for Kane Barrett, Walker is replaced by Scott Waldrom, Gibson-Park is out of the 22 altogether after the inclusion of debutant Chris Smylie, and Brett Goodin is on the bench. Climo suffered a high ankle sprain and is replaced by Jackson Ormond, while Broadhurst shifts to the bench for Clarke.
There are also changes on the bench where Timo Tutavaha comes in for All Blacks hooker Andrew Hore, Sione Lea replaces Carl Carmichael, while James Marshall has been bracketed with Jack Cameron.
Clarke's return from a grade two medial knee injury has come about sooner than expected after fears he would miss up to six weeks following the Chiefs' successful Super Rugby final.
"We've been building towards this, and he had been planning on being back for Hawke's Bay, which is good news for us," Cooper said.
There are several talking points amongst Cooper's selections, including Hoeata's demotion to the bench, something the coach said was down to wanting to build competition and Barrett's form as a replacement in Tenderlink Taranaki's opening two NPC matches.
The same rationale was behind Waldrom's inclusion, although Cooper said he offered a different style to Walker.
"I'm just trying to get a different balance from different players to take into this game."
The five-two forwards split on the bench hints Taranaki will not be as open in their play against Hawke's Bay as they were with Tasman, with their overall forward strength an advantage over their opponents tomorrow night.
"We've gone with that split because of what they [Hawke's Bay] are going to bring in the forwards," Cooper countered.
"I think we've got one of the best benches Taranaki has ever been able to field. We're lucky to have that experience and impact."
Gibson-Park's axing centred almost exclusively on the fact the coaching staff wanted to have more experience on the bench.
"Jamo [Gibson-Park] has done wonderfully well, and there is no doubt he is the future, but it's a sign of the quality we have," Cooper said.
Hawke's Bay have taken the unusual step of not releasing their side until 6pm tonight.
TARANAKI: Kurt Baker, Waisake Naholo, Willie Rickards, Jayden Hayward, Jackson Ormond, Beauden Barrett, Chris Smylie, Blade Thomson, Scott Waldrom, Kane Barrett, Jason Eaton, Craig Clarke (captain), Michael Bent, Laurence Corlett, Chris King. Reserves: Timo Tutavaha, Sione Lea, James Broadhurst, Jarrad Hoeata, Chris Walker, Brett Goodin, James Marshall or Jack Cameron.
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