A season of highs and lows

GLENN MCLEAN
Last updated 09:21 28/10/2012
tdn scott stand
ROBERT CHARLES
Scott Waldrom celebrates after scoring the winning try against Canterbury earlier in the season.

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Taranaki Rugby

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The weather at Inglewood in late July reflected the mood of Taranaki rugby fans at the time - bright and sunny.

With the Ranfurly Shield put up against lowly King Country, Taranaki's representative season was always going to start on a good note.

It did, Taranaki sending the Heartland Championship side away with a predictable 67-16 thumping.

Fast forward three months and the season ended in dramatic circumstances, Beauden Barrett missing a sideline conversion with four minutes left that could have taken Taranaki into their first- ever top flight National Provincial Championship final.

As in every campaign that ends with a loss, there were plenty of "what if" and "if only" scenarios to work through and Barrett was at the centre of many a bar-leaner discussion.

The 21-year-old made just four appearances for Taranaki in 2012 as All Blacks coach Steve Hansen opted to sideline him from the majority of the NPC so he could act as backup if star playmaker Dan Carter failed to recover from a troublesome calf injury.

While most understood the rationale, it was still galling for fans to witness Barrett sideline at Eden Park in his civvies as Taranaki fell to their first loss of the season.

Barrett missed seven matches in a row, played just four minutes for the All Blacks, and was rusty when he returned against Wellington a week before his side's semifinal.

His absence, combined with the loss of Scott Waldrom (broken arm) midway through the NPC, robbed Taranaki of some much needed X-factor in two key positions.

Add in a lack of depth at centre and hooker, two positions that always looked fragile pre-season, an injury to star fullback Andre Taylor in the squad's first NPC outing, a malfunctioning lineout and a demanding Ranfurly Shield schedule and you do not have to look far for reasons why Taranaki never reached the lofty goals they set at the start of the campaign.

Just how coach Colin Cooper managed his squad through such a compact schedule, given the impact the shield matches would have on the players' physical and mental wellbeing, was always going to be the most significant factor in whether Taranaki succeeded or failed in retaining the Log o' Wood and winning the NPC.

While he named 34 players in his initial NPC squad, 17 backs and 22 forwards would be used by season's end, although several players never appeared again past the King Country and Wanganui fixtures.

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Things started reasonably well in the NPC - a good win away over Bay of Plenty was followed by an enthralling shield win over Tasman.

This was a match in which many were predicting Taranaki to be dominant.

The fact they were not was testament to the attacking attitude Tasman brought to the challenge, which ended after Barrett crossed with a couple of minutes left to finally make the game safe for the shield holders.

The challenge highlighted several things, including Taranaki's sometimes-fragile defence and the level they would need to play at to see off the remaining challengers.

Hawke's Bay proved another stern test before Taranaki ground them down to end with a comfortable 22-6 win.

Four-time defending champions Canterbury were next, with many predicting the match to be season- defining.

It wasn't, although Taranaki put in arguably their best 80 minutes of rugby, forced their more fancied opponents into mistakes and finished the stronger, giving the province real belief their side could end the season with the Shield and be real contenders in the NPC.

Then reality struck.

Four days after their exhausting battle with Canterbury, Taranaki travelled north to Eden Park to face a confident Auckland side.

It proved too much for them for several reasons.

The selection of veteran halves combination Brett Goodin and Jack Cameron didn't work, the latter missing several reasonably comfortable shots at goal, while the team lacked spark, missed too many tackles and were basically taken apart up front.

It was a pre-cursor to the next time they were to play on a Wednesday night.

A scratchy one-point win over Northland, followed by a commanding victory over a poor Manawatu side left Taranaki with only Waikato to get past to retain the shield for another summer.

Taranaki were never in the match as Waikato put some poor form behind them to produce 80 minutes of brutal rugby that left Taranaki well and truly out for the count.

As captain Craig Clarke would later allude to, the match took plenty out of the squad to the point they never produced the sort of form they were capable of until faced with a semifinal against Canterbury in Christchurch.

The fact they came so close to causing a major upset, on the back of a stirring second-half effort, owed a lot to the character of the squad.

While most pundits afforded Taranaki some praise, they deserved more because they never got the rub of the green through some poor officiating as Canterbury reverted to their usual tactics off the ball and at the breakdown.

In the end, Cooper would naturally look back and question some of the decisions they made around selections and tactics.

While he rightfully bemoaned the lack of time he had to devise game plans and actually coach, there will be plenty of critics who will question why he did not start in-form halfback Jamison Gibson- Park in the semifinal, and in other games, and why he could not find a spot for Nemia Soqeta in the squad, given his impact against Canterbury.

Cooper has long favoured experience in his selections, especially in crucial games, and Chris Smylie gave him a safe option. Smylie generally took the right options, while finding a spot for Soqeta was difficult given the depth at lock.

If there was one area Taranaki could have improved on it was their lack of variation in their game at times as the teams above them showed the value of changing running angles, ball carriers showing more vision and better utilising their support.

Cooper will point to the fact they scored 42 tries through the NPC, more than double what they achieved in 2011.

However, Taranaki supporters will be concerned over the summer at just how many players will return for 2013.

Top try scorers Kurt Baker 9

Frazier Climo 6

Jason Eaton 5

James Marshall 5

Waisake Naholo 5

Top points scorer Frazier Climo 115

- © Fairfax NZ News

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