Without a NPC semifinal appearance for 12 years, it's a stretch finding anyone in the Taranaki squad with playoff experience.
Fortunately, for coach Colin Cooper, he can call on veteran prop Chris King.
King, 31, is the only one in Taranaki's 22-man squad to have appeared in a semifinal in recent years, when he turned out twice for Southland in their vain attempts to make a first final.
With a first-class career that has ticked past 200 games, King knows a thing or two about pressure matches. His input was also called on during the year as Cooper asked him to talk to the team about the demands of defending the Ranfurly Shield.
While they were not able to lock away the Log o' Wood for the summer, the chance of becoming the first Taranaki team to make a top-flight final should provide the squad with plenty of incentive.
King certainly thinks so but knows there will have to be a sharp lift in some of the forwards' work, most notably the lineout, which is operating at only 70 per cent despite some of the "big" names in the Taranaki pack.
"We also have to have a big focus on the breakdown and Canterbury have already started talking about it, so it's an area [where] we have to compete."
The breakdown was an area Taranaki excelled at against Canterbury last month when they snuck an 18-9 win, a scoreline no-one outside of the most fervent amber-and-black supporter would expect to be repeated tomorrow.
A provincial rugby nomad, King has represented Canterbury, Otago and Southland before answering Cooper's call to head north. Age appears not to have wearied him as he, along with fellow prop Michael Bent, have consistently been the side's best performers without much recognition. Someone who can share rugby memories as far back as King is his long-time friend and fellow front-rower, Laurence Corlett. The pair started their first-class careers in Canterbury and know the red-and-black fans will be expecting their team to run over the top of Taranaki.
"I don't think their mindset changes, even though they've got a lot of young guys in there," King said. "I think we hurt them at the start of the year because they were preparing to take the shield off us, so that result hurt them deep. I think they'll be looking for a real physical game and their kicking game is really good. They've got two great kickers really, so they'll play territory and that's what semifinal games are all about."
After 64 games for his adopted province, Corlett could be about to play his last game for Taranaki.
However, he won't go public yet about what his future.
He is focused on halting Canterbury's confident game when he gets a chance from the bench, a position he has had to become accustomed to with the improving form of first-choice rake Timo Tutavaha.
"It's about what we have talked about for a while - being physical," he said. "We've got to minimise our mistakes, don't try to push things because we don't have to worry about bonus points, only winning."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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