After 17 seasons of senior rugby, veteran forward Tony Penn could be about to lead his beloved Tukapa team out for the last time.
The former New Zealand Maori, Hurricanes and Taranaki prop will not be back next year. He might not even be back next week unless the defending champions get past arch rivals New Plymouth Old Boys in one semifinal of the Cast Iron Services senior A competition today.
While he was not sure just how many times he had turned out for Tukapa, he estimated he'd pulled the jersey on close to 250 times.
"Let's hope it's not for the last time but it could well be," Penn said about his impending retirement. "It's obviously going to be a pretty bloody tough encounter. As Old Boys showed two weeks ago, they're a really good side, especially at the breakdown where I think we were exposed a few times."
Tukapa scraped home 22-21 when the sides met in round one, and they had to come from 23-14 down late in their most recent match before prevailing 26-23.
Their two victories stretched their winning sequence over the city rivals to six, a statistic that has not been in keeping with the record between the teams over the past two decades.
Giving Penn confidence about today's clash was the Tukapa team sheet, which shows arguably their strongest starting XV of the season and a number of names that were missing a fortnight ago.
Impressive No8 Adrian Wyrill returns from injury to start, as does second five-eighth Isaia Tuifua and wing Whaimotu Craft-Chemis.
Tuifua will team up with arguably the form back of the second round in Nathan Hohaia.
His experience, pace and strength have been key ingredients in Tukapa's success in recent weeks and it would not be a stretch to say the pair could be in the Taranaki starting line-up when they defend the Ranfurly Shield against King Country in less than a fortnight.
"He's [Tuifua] had a couple of weeks with some game time so he's chomping at the bit to play as much footy as he can," he said.
Penn felt there had been some real "nervous energy" floating around their training ground this week.
As well as some improvement to their accuracy and aggression at the breakdown, Penn wanted his side just to concentrate on doing the basics well.
"It's getting your scrum right, it's getting your set plays right, it's making sure you make your first-up tackles," he said. "It's just fine-tuning and making sure we do our core roles right, as well as turning up with a bit of fizz and a bit of attitude."
Old Boys co-coach Phil Mitchell, a veteran of many a playoff game in his playing days, was also happy with the side he could put out, his only concern a calf injury to lock Dean Stewart, who will go through a late fitness test before he is allowed to sit on the bench.
Having had a week off through the bye to digest their last-up loss to Tukapa, Mitchell said there was one simple thing his side had to do to get over the line – play with intensity for 80 minutes, not just an hour.
"We were happy with a lot of things we did but we just couldn't close the game out as we would have liked."
Mitchell had plenty of respect for Tukapa and what they had achieved over the past two seasons but felt his side could topple them today, providing they played to their potential, kept their discipline and took their chances.
"We suffered from a couple of defensive lapses that let them in, too, so that's another area we will look at," he said.
If the Old Boys front five repeat their efforts from a fortnight ago, there is no doubt players such as James Marshall, Adam Laititi and Frazier Climo can cause the Tukapa defence plenty of problems.
There are plenty of similarities in today's other semifinal, with little separating Coastal and Inglewood.
Inglewood could rightly feel aggrieved at not being able to hold on to a draw when they met last week, while they also blew a substantial lead in round one before losing 24-23.
Inglewood assistant coach Wayne Dombroski was still up-beat about his side's chances, especially with the return of lock Germaine Anaha, flanker Mitch Brown and hooker Timo Tutavaha, although the latter came on after half an hour last week.
While pleased with the majority of his side's work last week, Dombroski felt Inglewood slackened off slightly at the start of the second half, something that ultimately cost them a chance of hosting today's semifinal.
"To our credit we did fight back really well and we'll go there confident tomorrow I think," he said.
The former Taranaki halfback said Inglewood would approach the match with basically the same blueprint they had used all season.
"We just need to be a bit more physical across the park and at the breakdown, that's a key area."
A key man in the Inglewood line-up will be second five-eighth Cole Brown, who not only showed his defensive strength last week but added some attacking punch. If he can create some space for centre Avon Lewis, Inglewood might just be able to put more pressure on what has been a pretty stoic Coastal defensive line.
Coastal coach Joe Lawn has had to scratch No8 Kelvin Weir because of a shoulder injury but welcomes back lock Dan Fitzharris and hooker Mitch Campbell to his starting team.
Lawn said his players had learnt a lot of lessons from their narrow 26-23 win last week, including the importance of starting well.
"We need to lift our intensity," he said. "We didn't bring enough of it when we carried [the ball] in that first half while, defensively, we just let them have too much front foot ball. We've got to make an effort to slow that down."
Lawn has also stressed the importance of improving their kicking game, something he felt was also not up to scratch last week.
HOW THEY LINE UP
TUKAPAv NP OLD BOYS2.45pm, todaySanders Park, NPReferee: Neville RitsonTUKAPA: Jesse McLay, Whaimotu Craft-Chemis, Nathan Hohaia, Isaia Tuifua, Lagen Kumeroa, Jack Cameron, Jamison Gibson-Park, Adrian Wyrill, Chris Walker, Alfred Veikoso, Leighton Price, Tony Penn (captain), Baxter King, Laurence Corlett, Carl Carmichael. Reserves, Ben Siffleet, Alec Dravitzki, Josh Hickford, Brooke Weck, Josh Sandford, Orisi Belau, Sean Curd. NEW PLYMOUTH OLD BOYS: Frazier Climo (captain), Emosi Masivou, Adam Laititi, Ross Allan, Wayne Mattson, James Marshall, Hamuera Baker, Jono Crossan, Johnny Marshall, Dave Riley, Rick Fabish, Trent Sutton, Hamish Mitchell, Andrew Gadsby, Richard Ives. Reserves, James Wilson, Darren Brown, Dean Stewart, Steve McConville, Ben Souness, Jeremy Thomas, Patrick Hausman. COASTALv INGLEWOOD2.35pm, todayRahotu DomainReferee: Darryl HeibnerCOASTAL: Steve Barron, Gareth Goodin, Chris Barron, Mike Summerell, Michael Julian, Brent Stevenson, Rick McKenna, Jeremy Newell, Jade Fleming, Nick Lawn (captain), Dan Fitzharris, Kane Barrett, Rhys Morgan, Mitch Campbell, Hamish Lawn. Reserves, James Murphy, Andrew Trolove, Patrick Stevenson, Jean Pierre Le Prou, John Julian, Te Whaiti Mareikura, Phil Barron. INGLEWOOD: Telly Hemopo, Pele Muagututia, Avon Lewis, Cole Brown, Aaron Taylor, Thomas Brown, Chris Bayens, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis (captain), James Oakes, Mitch Brown, Wiremu McSeveney or Brendon Lyon, Germaine Anaha, Lance White, Timo Tutavaha, Ben Steiner. Reserves, Mark Hale, Chris Gyde, Paul Petrowski, Lyon or McSeveney, Craig Wellington, Caeten Street, Daryl Gladding.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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