A win over Waikato on Wednesday will not only guarantee Taranaki another summer with the Ranfurly Shield but a spot in the NPC semifinals.
Taranaki's 59-18 hammering of a hapless Manawatu on Saturday stretched their Shield record to sevens wins in their latest tenure.
The five points they picked up at Yarrow Stadium on Saturday put them briefly on top of the NPC table before Wellington took over after their 34-28 win over strugglers North Harbour.
Taranaki does, however, have a game in hand over Wellington and Auckland who have the same number of points as the Shield holders.
With games against Waikato, Southland and Wellington to come in the next fortnight, Taranaki have their best ever chance of hosting a semifinal.
Waikato's chances of making the play-offs will almost certainly rely on them beating Taranaki because if they don't, then they will have a real scrap on their hands to avoid being relegated to the bottom tier of the NPC competition.
Taranaki warmed up for Wednesday night's showdown with a convincing win, the ease of which allowed coach Colin Cooper to drag a number of key guys off in the second half to keep them fresh.
One of them was captain Craig Clarke who admitted to enjoying a rare chance to put his feet up with 20 minutes left knowing Taranaki had a bonus point and the Shield safe. "I thought it would be a lot like the first 10 (minutes) when they bought a lot of heat," he said. "It was pretty taxing and we had to absorb some pressure for a while before we got a bit of a hold on the game, built some pressure and scored some points."
That they did as they simply took the Manawatu Turbos apart through some superb counter-attacking, helped by poor kicking and tackling by the visitors.
Taranaki fullback Kurt Baker was the chief benefactor, bagging a hat-tick of tries, while wing Frazier Climo grabbed a brace.
Fitter, faster and more skilled, Taranaki's attack had the crowd of 11,000 on their feet at times.
Not that it was all perfect from Taranaki as they faltered with some of their lineout work, conceded a couple of tries and made a number of errors in the last 10 minutes of the first half.
Taranaki were far more disciplined than their opposition, though, which allowed them to keep their composure under limited pressure.
"We've talked about these Shield games and the need to have good defence because if we can turn over the ball, we've got a very good back three," Clarke said.
The return of Andre Taylor, after he missed a month with a broken finger, has brought another attacking dimension as he compliments Baker and Climo. Add Waisake Naholo and Jackson Ormond to the mix and Cooper and his assistant Leo Crowley are spoilt for choice.
Cooper put the margin of the victory down partly to his side's superior fitness.
"I think we got quicker ball and we had the numbers on them," he said. "Their fatigue and our awareness to get quicker ball opened up space."
Cooper did not feel his side were on top in the first half, despite Taranaki taking a 23-10 lead into the break.
"I think we lived off their mistakes and the fact they were kicking to us," he said. "Pleasingly, I felt we really lifted in that final 20 minutes . . . Once it's one-on-one with some of our backs, they're dangerous and they'll hurt you."
While the back three got most of the plaudits, a lot of credit had to also go to halfback Jamison Gibson-Park, No 8 Blade Thomson and blindside flanker Kane Barrett who sparked a lot of the action around the fringes.
On the back of a steady scrum, Thomson excelled while Gibson-Park had the opposition clutching at thin air at times close to the ruck.
Cooper thinks the trio will get even better.
Not surprisingly, Manawatu coach Jason O'Halloran was disappointed by the manner of the loss which keeps his side second from bottom in the NPC championship division.
"They were lower and harder at the breakdown than us," he said. "We allowed them to pressure our clearance from the ruck because they came around the sides and hacked at the halfback. We can bitch and moan about the ref not taking care of that but we have to start taking guys away from that area."
Asked to rate Taranaki against the other sides in the top four, O'Halloran said he did not think they were as strong defensively.
"They certainly have a hell of a good attack though. There will be few teams as quick as them on the outside. I think they are the best attacking side. I think they will make the final against Canterbury."
TARANAKI 59 (Kurt Baker 3, Frazier Climo 2, Andre Taylor, Jackson Ormond, Willie Rickards tries; Climo 4 con, 3 pen, Taylor con) MANAWATU 18 (Craig Clare, Reece Robinson tries; Clare 2 pen, con). Ht: 23-10.
- © Fairfax NZ News