There might be question marks over the depth in a few positions but Taranaki coach Colin Cooper looks to have assembled an exciting squad ahead of the national provincial championship.
Cooper yesterday named 34 players - 18 forwards and 16 backs - who will not only look to improve on their third place in the ITM Cup last year but also defend the Ranfurly Shield.
Twenty-nine players from last year's squad return, the most notable exceptions being No 8s Samuela Vunisa (Italy) and Ben Souness (not selected), hooker Mahonri Schwalger (Counties-Manukau), halfback Tyson Keats (Italy) and centre George Pisi (England).
The newcomers are halfbacks Jamison Gibson-Park and Chris Smylie, flanker Mitchell Brown and utility backs James Marshall and Seta Tamanivalu.
Tamanivalu is a member of Taranaki's academy and can play in the midfield or on the wing.
"It's an experienced squad, there are a lot of caps and a lot of experience," Cooper said. "There are also some young guys in there looking ahead to the future."
Although the majority of his squad had assembled only this week, Cooper said he could already see the tactical awareness the players had developed together during the past two seasons.
Hooker Andrew Hore has also been included, although his participation is expected to be restricted to a couple of games because of his All Blacks duties.
Schwalger's absence will heap pressure on 58-game veteran Laurence Corlett and understudy Timo Tutavaha to stay fit and maintain their form during what will be another hectic season, with 10 games in eight weeks before the competition concludes with semifinals on October 19 and 20 and a final a week later.
No 8 and centre look the most thinly resourced. The decision to release Vunisa and not contract Souness because of salary cap constraints has left Cooper and his assistant, Leo Crowley, with a choice between Heiden Bedwell-Curtis and Blade Thomson, although the latter continues to be hindered by a back injury.
While Brown has been included, it would be a risk to play a teenager a year out of school in a tough competition.
Cooper could convert a number of players to the back of the scrum, given they have healthy stocks at lock and flanker, with Jarrad Hoeata a possible option.
The midfield could also provide some anxious moments, especially if Jayden Hayward goes down injured, but the coaches could again convert players to fill different roles. Fullback Kurt Baker could be tried at centre, as he was against King Country and Wanganui, while Marshall or veteran Jack Cameron could slip out a place from his specialist first five-eighth position if needed.
Injuries are likely to have an early say in selection, with captain Craig Clarke, Brett Goodin, Shane Cleaver, Isaia Tuifua and Thomson unlikely to be fit for Tenderlink Taranaki's first match against Bay Of Plenty on August 25.
Cooper said Thomson was hopefully only a week or two away from returning, although he would be carefully managed.
The positives should far outweigh any concerns fans have about certain positions, however.
The Super Rugby and test form of the likes of Andre Taylor, Beauden Barrett, Baker, Jason Eaton, James Broadhurst and Hoeata has been strong.
And with players including Scott Waldrom and Michael Bent have been given some quality game time, Taranaki could be in for a memorable season.
The Taranaki squad for the ITM Cup: Backs: Kurt Baker, Beauden Barrett, Jack Cameron, Frazier Climo, Jamison Gibson-Park, Brett Goodin, Jayden Hayward, James Marshall, Waisake Naholo, Kylem O'Donnell, Jackson Ormond, Willie Rickards, Chris Smylie, Seta Tamanivalu, Andre Taylor, Isaia Tuifua. Forwards: Kane Barrett, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Michael Bent, James Broadhurst, Mitchell Brown, Carl Carmichael, Craig Clarke, Shane Cleaver, Laurence Corlett, Jason Eaton, Jarrad Hoeata, Andrew Hore, Willie Ioane, Sione Lea, Blade Thomson, Timo Tutavaha, Scott Waldrom, Chris Walker. Coach: Colin Cooper Assistant coach: Leo Crowley
- © Fairfax NZ News
Should there be bonus points in ITM Cup scoring?Related story: Bonus points make a mockery of premier competition