Living up to the expectations of the public could prove Taranaki's biggest challenge when they kick off their national provincial championship season against Wellington tomorrow night.
While they did well to finish with the same number of wins as the top three last season, they were aided by an extremely good draw.
They do not have the same luxury this season, with Wellington (home), Waikato (away), Northland (away) and Auckland (home) to play in the first 16 days of their ITM Cup programme.
Still, Taranaki have a settled squad and coach Colin Cooper will be grateful for the services of former All Blacks Scott Waldrom and Jason Eaton, who played little or no part in last year's campaign.
While they have an abundance of depth in some positions, Taranaki are still thin in certain areas, most notably backup to promising first five-eighth Beauden Barrett, while there are concerns around the backup in midfield and on the wing if injuries bite early in the condensed competition.
There is no shortage of confidence in the Taranaki camp that they can finally reach a first division final but they will need to start well and not drop games to lesser sides, a problem that cost them a playoffs spot in 2010.
A top-four finish would be viewed outside the province as a successful campaign and Taranaki would do well to achieve it.
There is no doubt the competition format will prove a significant hurdle for teams outside the metropolitan areas, with squad depth sure to be the major factor in deciding the final make-up.
Canterbury's bid to win four successive titles could depend on how quickly some of their over-worked Crusaders return to the fold.
The defending champions and the other top six teams play in the premiership, while teams who finished outside the top seven last season play in the championship. The bottom-placed premiership side will be relegated to the second-tier next year, while the winner of the championship final earns promotion to the elite division.
There are no semifinals in 2011 because of the World Cup.
Last year's beaten finalists Waikato could benefit from virtually being snubbed by the All Blacks selectors and will field one of, if not the biggest, forward packs in the competition.
The return of experienced openside flanker Marty Holah will be invaluable, while they should have experienced Stephen Donald to run things at first five-eighth. While he has plenty of critics, this level of rugby is where he is most effective.
Wellington, too, will benefit from having a number of fringe All Blacks available, while Auckland have an abundance of young talent mixed with experience in key positions.
Southland look too one-dimensional to challenge for the title and could end up in a scrap with Bay of Plenty to avoid relegation.
The championship looks like Hawke's Bay's to lose, although there is sure to be plenty of upsets, even in the crossover matches.
- Taranaki Daily News
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