Captain and coach point to solid build-up
'Confrontational, up-front game' expectedGLENN MCLEAN
It's a frightening statistic for Taranaki fans - Canterbury have not lost a Ranfurly Shield challenge since October 3, 1998.
That was a 29-23 defeat to Waikato, and with Canterbury's unquestionable pedigree and form, it's going to take a massive effort for Taranaki to retain the Ranfurly Shield today.
Not that anyone in the Taranaki squad is shying away from the challenge. Far from it in fact, because there is a growing confidence that they can get the job done in front of what they hope will be a large and parochial crowd.
The biggest question will be whether Taranaki take Canterbury on up front or out wide.
"Conditions will play a big part in that," Tenderlink Taranaki coach Colin Cooper said.
"It will be a confrontational, up-front game if the [weather] forecast is right, and we can play that game if we want. If it's a beautiful day we can play an attacking game because they are big on [playing with] width, but we can play that too."
Cooper was more than happy with the way the week had panned out, how his squad had trained and how the squad leaders had prepared.
"Craig Clarke is a fantastic leader and that has really come through this week with the help of some great lieutenants," he said.
If Taranaki are heading into their "rugby war" then they have no shortage of experience, especially in their tight five in comparison to the four-times defending NPC champions.
If that battle is intriguing, then the loose forward match-ups are tremendous.
Scott Waldrom versus Matt Todd, Jarrad Hoeata versus George Whitelock and the young Blade Thomson up against a hardened Nasi Manu.
Where Canterbury will no doubt think they have an edge is in the backs where the visitors arrive with World Cup winner Andy Ellis at halfback, the promising Tyler Bleyendaal in the No 10 jersey and a powerful midfield in Ryan Crotty and Robbie Fruean.
Not that Taranaki are lacking talent there, although there are plenty of pessimists too willing to write off the side's chances without Beauden Barrett and Andre Taylor.
One certainty is that Canterbury will target young wing Waisake Naholo after he turned in a less than flattering performance under the high ball in Taranaki's 22-6 Shield win over Hawke's Bay last week.
The performance of first five-eighth James Marshall, along with the goal-kicking of Frazier Climo and the lineout throwing of Timo Tutavaha and his reserve, Sione Lea, will also be key ingredients if Taranaki are to stretch their Shield tenure to six matches.
Clarke, too, is happy with the side's build-up, especially the accuracy shown at training.
"It's been really good and the boys have shown some really good maturity for such a big occasion. I've hardly had to say anything," he said.
Just like his coach, Clarke was reading nothing into the fact the majority of pundits were predicting a Canterbury victory.
"Any game against Canterbury is going to be a tough battle, we're well aware of that," he said.
"But we're confident if we approach the game how we've trained, the way we've planned and with a bit of steel about us, then that should get us through."
He was also not forgetting about the four or five NPC points on offer.
"It's looking like if you drop a game then you're right back in the pack, so it's not just about the Shield, it's about that."
Canterbury arrived in New Plymouth yesterday afternoon for the the first time since they were here for Taranaki's 125th jubilee in 2010 when they left beaten 31-20.
First-year coach Tabai Matson had noticed a marked difference with his players after they enjoyed seven days preparation following three games in eight days.
"It feels like a bit of a luxury, actually," he said. "But we've still got a few bruised and battered bodies that we're trying to nurse through."
Matson denied he had tried to rotate his squad in the lead-up specifically for this game, saying it was just the nature of the competition.
He said his side were "fired up" for the challenge and had enjoyed a build-up that included input from several players who had enjoyed tenures with the shield.
"We've got a really young team, relatively, and our tight five has an average age of 22, so it was good to have guys come in and talk about Shield rugby." As for Canterbury's impressive record when it came to challenging for the Log o' Wood, Matson felt no extra pressure.
"Not on me, I don't get to tackle any more," he joked. "We know we are going into an environment that is tough, on any day. I mean, Yarrow Stadium, against Taranaki, and then you throw the Shield into that, unless we bring our A-game we're going to be bitterly disappointed. Nothing but our best is going to get close to Taranaki."
INJURY FINALLY RULES CLEAVER OUT FOR THE SEASON
Shane Cleaver's season is officially over following ongoing problems with concussion.
The Taranaki prop called time on his attempt to get a clearance to join his side's NPC campaign after advice from the team's medical staff.
"I'm still not myself," he said this week. "Day-to-day I'm pretty good because it did affect me quite a bit at the start.
"Once I start training I get dizzy and feel nauseous and I go into a bit of a fog, if that makes sense."
The 25-year-old has not been cleared to play since he took a head knock playing for the Chiefs in March. It followed a similar knock he took a couple of weeks beforehand and several he received playing for Taranaki in 2011.
He said the "fog" in his head stopped him "thinking straight" and the symptoms could last for several days. While the prognosis does not look favourable for the 43-game veteran, he is confident he can make progress, particularly now he has buttoned off his training and can relax without the pressure of trying to get back on the field.
"I think I am improving because I have improved a heap in myself," he said.
Cleaver saw a specialist three months ago who was to have assessed his progress in coming weeks. However, continued symptoms have stopped him making a return visit.
"It's been the most frustrating thing I've gone through, especially when some days you feel 100 per cent," he said.
"Being completely ruled out is actually a relief because it's been more frustrating, and it was the same at the Chiefs, hoping to come back and trying to keep fit. Every morning I was waking up stressing, asking myself if I was better.
"Now I can just concentrate on getting myself better, focus on next year and try to get myself in good nick."
There has been no shortage of advice from players who have suffered similar problems, which has given Cleaver optimism he can return to the game.
Financially, Cleaver is covered through ACC and the New Zealand Players' Association collective contract. The New Zealand Rugby Union has also put a lot more focus on trying to educate coaches at all levels about the long-term dangers of concussion through their ACC RugbySmart programme.
A new on-field rule has also been introduced that allows players to leave the field to be assessed.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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