If Taranaki coach Colin Cooper was looking to inject some enthusiasm into his side before tonight's crucial NPC showdown with Northland, then he found the right man in Kane Barrett.
The big loose forward could not have sounded any more keen when spoken to in Whangarei yesterday as he prepared to get back on the field after several weeks away.
The 22-year-old must have been wondering what he had done to deserve a wretched run of luck after being forced to sit out matches against Hawke's Bay, Canterbury and Auckland because of recurring bouts of illness.
Add in the fact he was sidelined for all of the rep season last year because of a chest injury and Barrett's luck must surely be about to turn.
"It's good to be back knowing I'm going to get out on the field," he said.
A stomach virus that refused to go away, followed by a chest infection, stripped 5kg off Barrett's 111kg frame but he was confident it would not affect his performance tonight.
"Once I get going and the adrenaline gets going, I'll be fine," he said. "I've pumped a few weight sessions out in the last couple of days and I've felt a bit weaker than normal but I'm not far off the button. You just have to deal with what life throws at you."
Barrett is one of nine changes to the Tenderlink Taranaki side who lost 43-32 to Auckland on Wednesday night in a performance that demonstrated how much three successive Ranfurly Shield challenges took out of them.
The defeat, their first of the NPC season, meant they lost the chance to have the outright lead in the premiership division, which they now share with Auckland and Wellington.
If they are to meet their expectations of hosting a semifinal, then tonight's cross-over match has huge significance.
"Guys like me, James Marshall and Chris Smylie, we've got to bring the energy to the team tomorrow night," Barrett said.
"We've got the fresh legs and Coops [Taranaki coach Colin Cooper] has drummed into us that we've got to bring the mental attitude as well."
The match holds a bit more significance for Barrett, given that it is in Blues country, a franchise he is close to signing with, for next year.
"It's still up in the air and we're still working through the process, that's all I can say," Barrett said.
Most of the Taranaki squad have had to take it easy since arriving in Whangarei on Thursday, with massages taking up more time than any physical training after Auckland dusted them up in most areas.
In contrast, Northland have had a week's grace after they pipped Tasman 20-17 through a late Ash Moeke penalty.
It was a vital win for Northland - it keeps them in the top four and in a good position to snare a semifinal spot in the championship division.
Northland assistant coach Derren Whitcombe said it was a big effort for his side to leave Blenheim with four competition points against an in-form Tasman side.
"Even though they had three games in a week, they are a pretty good team. The last couple of weeks we've started to find some consistency but we still don't think we've clicked as a team yet."
With Moeke in excellent goalkicking form, and the likes of Rene Ranger in an attacking backline, Northland will fancy their chances of tipping over Taranaki at home.
"The guys are aware Taranaki is a good side but we've got a game plan that will hopefully work against them," Whitcombe said.
"If they kick to us, we'll be keen to counter but I'm not going to give too much away."
Whitcombe, along with coach Adriaan Ferris, has stressed the importance of finishing try-scoring chances and that is their first priority.
Cooper would have laid down the importance of Taranaki starting well after their sluggish effort at Eden Park.
Taranaki also need to tidy up their set-piece, concentrate on taking more sensible options and show more desperation in defence.
A loss tonight would put them under huge pressure to win their remaining four games if they are to realise their ambition of hosting a first-ever playoff at Yarrow Stadium.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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