Waikato primed for first challenge in five years. Aaron Goile reports.
Waikato captain Alex Bradley enters the unknown tomorrow night with his first crack at winning the prized Ranfurly Shield.
Instead of being able to impart wise words to his comrades of first-hand accounts of Log o' Wood contests of years gone by, the powerful No 8, who debuted in 2009, is instead just one of the boys.
In fact, by Bradley's reckoning, the injured Marty Holah is the only Mooloo man in the extended squad who has actually had a crack at New Zealand rugby's prestigious prize.
Tomorrow night's match in New Plymouth will be Waikato's first shield challenge since 2007.
"I know a few of the boys there are over 50 games and have never had a go at it," Bradley said.
With Waikato almost certain to miss the national premiership playoffs and instead battling to avoid relegation to the championship, the shield challenge brings about the possibility of a massive silver lining to their season.
"The boys are firing all right," Bradley said.
"They know it's something special and obviously we need to go down there and play our game and perform."
Bradley said the side were focusing on getting the small things right, like cutting down errors and gelling as a team, though they weren't going into the contest with a nothing-to-lose type attitude.
"We haven't really talked about throwing it around," he said.
"It's more about nailing our individual jobs, getting those right, and as a collective that'll bring points on the board for us and hopefully we can bus home with that shield and also the [Ryan] Wheeler [Memorial] Trophy as well."
Despite NPC points being vital, Bradley acknowledged the shield was easily the top priority and that has involved a look back at some of the glory days.
"We've got quite a few young guys in the team and we're trying to imprint a little bit of that into them so that they've got an idea of the past and what it's meant and how Waikato have gone with their previous challenges," he said.
"Definitely I've got vivid memories of being a young fella and watching a few of those games myself, whereas perhaps they don't [with me] being one of the older heads," said Bradley, who turned 31 on Sunday.
However, wresting the shield off Taranaki has already proved too tough for other sides this year and the hosts will be full of confidence after their latest defence - a 59-18 hiding of Manawatu, which the Waikato players were made to watch.
"They went well but there were definitely weaknesses there that we can exploit, hopefully," Bradley said.
Taranaki have to overcome a brisk four-day turnaround too, which Bradley said had to help Waikato more than the holders.
"But then their coach [Colin Cooper] has played things wisely, they held players back and made changes early on in the game, knowing this was their last challenge."
Waikato have been boosted by the return of three players from injury, with eight changes made to the starting lineup which beat Tasman by one point last Thursday.
Prop Toby Smith and hooker Marcel Cummings-Toone make a return from injury, as does Romana Graham at lock, while Matt Vant Leven is back at blindside flanker.
There is a change to the halves combination with Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Sam Christie preferred, while Tim Mikkelson returns to the wing and Trent Renata is back in the No 15 jersey.
Waikato: Trent Renata, Declan O'Donnell, Save Tokula, Jackson Willison, Tim Mikkelson, Sam Christie, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Alex Bradley (c), Zak Hohneck, Matt Vant Leven, Sam Kilgour, Romana Graham, Ben May, Marcel Cummings-Toone, Toby Smith. Res: Vance Elliott, Latu Talakai/ Ted Tauroa, Anthony Wise, Rory Grice, Brendon Leonard, Piers Francis, Joe Webber.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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