Southern and Clifton focused on new season
Two hundred and fifty-eight days ago Southern coach Willie Rickards was being hoisted above the shoulders of his players after his side broke their duck and won their first Taranaki senior club title.
Today, at the Camp Reserve in Waitara, Rickards will walk away from his side to concentrate on a new challenge with the Taranaki national provincial championship side.
Fitting then, that Rickards' swansong should be a rematch of last year's grand final, a match many inside the Clifton club remain puzzled as to how their side lost.
Not that it matters a hoot now, as both sides concentrate on the game at hand and starting the 2014 premier club season on the right note.
Incoming Southern coach Jason Skipper, who will be shoulder to shoulder on the sidelines with Rickards today, insists the "rematch" between the two sides holds no major significance in regard to last year's final, a view shared by Clifton coach Ian Snook.
"I don't think the boys see it as a replay or anything like that," Snook said.
"This is a new year and they are just keen to play and put on a good performance because at the end of the day it's the first game of the season and it's only worth half points.
"Being in front of a good crowd and trying to perform well in front of your community and friends is more important to them."
Snook is happy to have the services of New Zealand sevens rep and new Taranaki recruit Marty McKenzie, who is fresh off the sevens' win at the Hong Kong tournament.
"He's come back and got straight into training," he said.
"He's keen to go and keen to make a good impression as he tries to get that first-five spot for Taranaki."
McKenzie will take over the goal-kicking duties today after Beaudein Waaka was ruled out with injury in the middle of the week.
Clifton's pre-season went well, according to the coach, who feels his side is more forward than 12 months ago.
He has plenty of respect for Southern, who he expects will be "scrapping it out" with a number of teams this season to make the top four in what looks an even competition.
If Clifton are looking for an extra incentive to perform, then it may come in hooker Abe Haira, who will play his 100th senior match for the club.
Skipper thinks the experience of his forward pack, with the likes of Jason Hooper, Ricki Hoeata and John Smyth will help Southern cope with the atmosphere at the Camp Reserve as they take their first steps towards defending their title.
Wanganui lock Andrew Retallick's inclusion adds further size to a large front eight for Southern in what will be a physical, uncompromising match-up.
The rookie coach is also excited about the prospect of bringing former Melbourne Storm recruit Jesse Parete off the bench.
"He's got a huge skill base and it will be exciting getting him out there and playing," he said.
If Southern are able to generate quick ball, Skipper is confident they have the backline to trouble Clifton.
Of the match-ups on show, Mckenzie's battle with Taranaki No 10 Daniel Brooks looks the most mouth-watering, while the clash between rival centres Tama Blackburn and Southern captain Jackson Ormond should also be a highlight.
If there is a difference between the sides, then it might come down to the speed and intensity of the Clifton defence.
Elsewhere, local fans should head to Yarrow Stadium to watch Spotswood United roll out for the first time under new coaches Brendan Crowley and Brent Perrett against Coastal.
A lot of emphasis has gone into making the No 4 ground a fortress for Spotswood in their 125th year and it will be fitting if the sidelines are full on opening day.
The match between Inglewood and Tukapa at the TET Stadium looks too close to call. Both sides are under new management.
Both have also been positive in describing their pre-season build-ups, while Inglewood might just have an edge with a number of first-choice players out injured for Tukapa.
New Plymouth Old Boys should edge Stratford in Stratford, with a number of new players no doubt keen to impress given the competition for some places.
New Stratford coach Brendan Haami will want to start his tenure on the right note, especially at home.
The premier division has picked up a new sponsor, with J D Hickman signing a two-year deal with the Taranaki Rugby Football Union.
HOW THEY LINE UP
CLIFTON v SOUTHERN
Camp Reserve, Waitara
Referee: Richard Kelly
CLIFTON: Matiu Welch, Te Waiti Mareikura, Tama Blackburn, Josh Kendall, Jordan Mellar-Rose, Marty McKenzie, Hamuera Baker, Chris Black (captain), Peter Ratima, Mark Shaw, Matt White, Dane Kendall, Ryan Cocker, Abe Haira, Zane Neill. Reserves, Sione Lea, Dan Dreaver, Karipa White, Latu Sisifa, Bevan Quigley, Brandon Pokere, Andrew Tonks
SOUTHERN: Rhys Furness, Daniel Chapman, Jackson Ormond (captain), Brent Landers, Luke Taplin, Daniel Brooks, Josh Sandford, Ricki Hoeata, Danny McDonald, Daniel McKerrow, Andrew Retallick, Jon Smyth, Murray Turner, Kent Myers, Jason Hooper. Reserves, Ryan Kuklinski, Jacob Northcott, Peter Northcott, Rhys Parry, Jesse Parete, Shelton Symes, Cody McGrath.
Other games Spotswood United v Coastal Yarrow Stadium Inglewood v Tukapa TET Stadium Stratford v NPOB Victoria Park
Taranaki Daily News