The late withdrawal yesterday of star playmaker Beauden Barrett didn't come as a surprise to Taranaki ahead of their Ranfurly Shield defence against Hawke's Bay tonight.
Word filtered through to Taranaki coach Colin Cooper early in the week that All Blacks first five-eighth Dan Carter was struggling with a calf injury and Barrett would be kept in Wellington as cover.
News that Carter woke on Wednesday with an improved outlook on his injury did not alter Cooper's belief that Barrett would remain in the capital, so Taranaki simply trained on the presumption he wouldn't be available.
That still meant a decision on who to start in tonight's match at Yarrow Stadium - experienced No 10 Jack Cameron or new recruit James Marshall.
Marshall, whose form has been better than Cameron's in recent weeks, got the nod.
In a game that is expected to be tightly fought, there are concerns about Marshall's erratic goal-kicking, especially with Frazier Climo unavailable because of a calf sprain sustained in Taranaki's 49-40 shield defence against Tasman.
While the absence of Barrett is likely to cause widespread anxiety among Taranaki's supporters, his loss has been partially off-set by the return of captain Craig Clarke and the introduction of Hurricanes halfback Chris Smylie and former All Blacks flanker Scott Waldrom.
They are three players with immense experience.
Although Marshall's best position looks to be fullback, he has the skill-set and temperament to have a substantial influence on the match, provided Taranaki's forwards feed him good front-foot ball.
That is likely to mean a tightening of the ship from the front eight, who can play with added intensity given Cooper has the luxury of being able to call on the services of James Broadhurst, Jarrad Hoeata and Chris Walker off the bench.
The high standards Clarke demands from his players have also been evident this week.
However, he said things had been "pretty good" in his absence.
"It's just been a case of slotting in really for me. Pig [Jason Eaton] is calling the lineouts, so I can just come back and concentrate on my role," he said.
Clarke said Taranaki were still "a little behind the eight ball" with their defence but he was confident it would improve from six days ago.
Clarke felt the players were disappointed with their overall performance against Tasman.
"They knew they slipped in their standards and that was really evident when I went into the shed after the game," he said. "It's just a case of fixing a few things and the guys have gone about that this week."
He feels Hawke's Bay's biggest threat is their forward pack close to the line and their ability to drive from the lineout, while Karl Lowe's breakdown skills can also be influential.
Hawke's Bay arrived in New Plymouth yesterday afternoon after having their captain's run in Napier in the morning.
All Blacks wing Zac Guildford is not playing because of a hamstring tear.
Nevertheless, coach Craig Philpott is happy with the state of his squad, despite having to play three games in eight days, including their last-up 37-30 win over Counties-Manukau.
"From a forwards perspective, it was good to put out a performance that we were happy with and we want to build on that," he said.
Turning around the poor starts they have had in their first three games is a priority for Philpott.
He said the team had not talked about last year's unsuccessful shield challenge that ended with Taranaki 29-11 victors.
"We haven't performed well enough ourselves to date to worry about anything else," he said.
"We certainly haven't looked back at last year and, this week has just been about getting our performance right."
Taranaki prop Chris King, who has played for Canterbury, Otago and Southland, will notch up his 100th provincial match.
The game kicks off at the earlier time of 6.05pm.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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