A successful season sweetened by Shield

In just about any other year, Taranaki rugby supporters would be feeling hard done by.

Having finished higher than they ever had – third in the National Provincial Championship (NPC) – they missed a playoff spot because the semifinals were scrapped due to the World Cup.

Add in the fact that Taranaki ended the shortened season with the equal-highest number of wins in the ITM Cup premiership and there would have been a bitter taste in the mouths of not only the players, but the coaching staff.

But sweet was the taste on August 24 when Taranaki lifted the Ranfurly Shield from Southland after a dog-fight so rough it is a wonder the SPCA was not summoned at halftime.

Their 15-12 victory was not pretty, but the outcome sure was.

Suddenly, the blatant forward pass that cost Taranaki so dearly against Manawatu did not look so bad; the inept television match official in Hamilton who thought it was OK to award a bonus-point try to a Waikato player who dropped the ball cold over the line could almost be forgiven. Well, almost.

The Ranfurly Shield brightens a province like no other sporting trophy in New Zealand because its history is so great.

This side did what only five Taranaki sides have done in 107 years, but there were also other highlights to consider in a year when the players were asked to put themselves through the most compact NPC format since its inception in 1976.

A second successive victory at Waikato Stadium to win back the Ryan Wheeler Trophy was followed by a record win over Auckland, while the side also toppled high-flyers Bay of Plenty in one of the most entertaining matches at Yarrow Stadium in years.

Combine those achievements with the Ranfurly Shield win and the convincing defence against Hawke's Bay, and the good certainly overshadowed the below-par performances against Wellington, Manawatu and Canterbury.

So how do the coaches judge the season?

Satisfied, they say, as well as excited about the prospect of defending the shield in 2012.

Looking back, Taranaki coach Colin Cooper felt his side were always going to struggle to beat Wellington first-up after they were forced to prepare for the season without their Super Rugby players, while the side also took a hammering in their last pre-season hit-out against Waikato.

"I think the way Wellington played, their line speed and their physicality didn't help us," he said. "What it did was make us more thorough and change a few things about the way we played."

The coaches must have thought those changes were off the mark at the start of the Waikato match, as the side fell 14-0 behind early before putting in arguably their best 40 minutes of the season to finish over the top of their hosts.

The win gave Taranaki the self-belief that had almost been sapped out of them by Wellington, although a tricky assignment still awaited in Whangarei, where the side was forced to wait until 8.05pm for kickoff.

Whether it was the late start or the lack of atmosphere, Taranaki again fell behind early before clawing their way back to take the lead and hold it.

It was a victory assistant coach Leo Crowley thought deserved more recognition.

"Especially with the hole we put ourselves in being 13-0 down," he said. "Not many teams go up there and do well or come back like that. I thought it was one of our better wins."

Cooper thought the players never gave Northland the respect they deserved, especially with some of the passes that were being thrown.

Trucking on home to face Auckland in a confident mood, no-one at Yarrow Stadium on that sunny Sunday afternoon could have envisaged the outcome, especially as the teams went in at halftime with the score at 6-3.

A five-try onslaught saw Taranaki demolish New Zealand's most successful province 39-11 and set them on a path towards the top of the ITM Cup table, or so they thought.

Those aspirations took a massive hit on a stormy night in Palmerston North as Taranaki failed to turn a good first half into the wind into a decisive second 40 minutes against Manawatu.

"They got away with a hell of a lot at the ruck," Crowley said. "Bringing our reserves on, it wouldn't have been an easy game to come on and get into.

"It was like the Bay of Plenty game pre-season when we showed we struggled to play a second half with the wind because we still didn't have a very good kicking game back then, and we tried to play too much rugby at times."

The loss meant the next match against Bay of Plenty became crucial to the direction their season would take.

With the pressure mounting, Taranaki again started slowly, with the Steamers racing out to an early lead before young first five-eighth Beauden Barrett showed his class, kicking a record nine penalties as the visitors continued to infringe.

Well ahead with 15 minutes to play, Taranaki had to hold on as the Steamers stormed home to almost grab an unlikely win.

"I thought our tactics were pretty good in that match because we starved them of the ball," Cooper said.

"The game also showed us we could play different styles and that helped us win the shield in the long run."

The next match, against Tasman – their third in six days – was just about getting a win, no matter how ugly. They did, with the side then embarking on a rare South Island tour that culminated in a battle for New Zealand rugby's greatest prize.

The 27-0 loss to Canterbury looked bad to the casual observer, although the coaches were far from hitting the panic button four days out from the shield challenge.

"Canterbury served its purpose because it made us go into real detail about our game and it put a real edge on us," Cooper said.

The shield challenge was always going to define Taranaki's season after that loss. It did, with Taranaki giving everything they had right up until the 80th minute.

With Taranaki ahead 15-12, Southland set a scrum within striking distance as the referee called the final play. The Taranaki forwards then produced the scrum of their lives to push the holders off the ball, earn a penalty and win the shield.

"We knew that scrum was our destiny," Cooper said. "They were either going to get a penalty from it or set up a drop kick or we were going to defend it. We knew it was all on that scrum and we pushed them off it."

The shield win, coupled with the first defence against Hawke's Bay in front of nearly 18,000 people, meant the season ended with Taranaki holding the best defensive record – along with the worst attacking record, if bonus points are a measure of that.

Now the coaches can focus on recruitment to fill the shoes of halfback Tyson Keats and centre George Pisi – two players who will not be easily replaced.

"We have to get it right to keep the shield," Cooper said.

As for this year's competition format that saw 10 games squeezed into six weeks?

"It did put an edge on things, having two divisions and the threat of relegation," Cooper said. "I'm just here on the ride. Whatever they throw at us we just have to take and get on with it. We've got the shield, so I'm not that concerned."

The successful Ranfurly Shield challenge and defence will be covered extensively in a 48-page book due out later this month.

Taranaki Daily News