The two biggest challenges in New Zealand domestic rugby have arrived for Taranaki.
To beat Canterbury in Christchurch and then follow it up four days later with a Ranfurly Shield challenge against Southland is an opportunity not afforded to many players and one that is not beyond this Taranaki side, despite what the TAB thinks.
Add in the opportunity to move closer to the top of the ITM Cup table and there should be no extra incentive needed for the players before today's lunchtime kickoff against three-time defending champions Canterbury.
The mood in the camp is buoyant, especially with the players being afforded the chance to have eight days between matches.
Today's task, however, is tough.
History is very much against Taranaki, having not beaten Canterbury in a first-class match in the Garden City since 1962. But it was even more against Manawatu last week and they managed to break a 124-year hoodoo in the capital.
The differences are stark, however. While Wellington are very much out of sorts, even with their latest win over Southland, Canterbury have the playing pedigree, the history and the knack of always being able to stay near the top of the table.
The return of fullback Sean Maitland, the power of centre Robbie Fruean, the educated play of second five-eighth Ryan Crotty and the pace of wing Patrick Osborne give Canterbury scoring ability right across the field.
Where they appear most vulnerable is in the tight five. While Canterbury's loose forwards are a match for most sides in the competition, Taranaki need to get a clear edge up front and control the match far better than they did in their previous outing against Tasman.
There is no doubt fatigue was a factor for Taranaki in that match but there can be no excuses now.
The return to the starting side of former All Blacks flanker Scott Waldrom, young playmaker Beauden Barrett, who plays his blazer game, and captain Craig Clarke will aid their cause no end, although the loss of in-form wing Andre Taylor is a blow, especially with the lack of experience out wide for the visitors.
Tenderlink Taranaki coach Colin Cooper has demanded a return to the team strategy that was missing for large parts of the Tasman game. "We gave Tasman a lot of opportunities to attack us, so we have to treasure the ball a bit more and look at our patterns – what we are trying to do," he said.
What he wants his players to do is stop kicking the ball away and "get smarter" in their play.
Despite Canterbury's more-obvious attacking threats, Cooper has not diverted from the side's normal defensive patters.
"I think we have the defence to handle those boys but we have to work harder," he said. "We wrestled rather than tackled against Tasman and lost valuable metres. I think we are a lot fresher to make those tackles and our attitude, which I thought waned a little because of the physical nature of week, will be better."
Canterbury coach Rob Penney has managed just one full training run with his side this week because of the heavy snow that fell in Christchurch.
While there are still patches of the white stuff around the streets, heavy rain has washed most of it away. Canterbury officials have also managed to clear Rugby Park and the surface is in remarkably good order.
The ground provides an intimate playing arena for the players where the spectators will be able to lean on the fence, just a few metres from the action.
The Taranaki side arrived for the first part of its six-day South Island tour at noon yesterday before having a captain's run at the ground adjacent to Rugby Park mid-afternoon.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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