Will Taranaki beat Northland tonight?
The lack of changes in Taranaki's side to face Northland signals just how important coach Colin Cooper views tonight's national championship match in Whangarei.
Having watched a number of Premiership sides already slip up against Championship opposition, Cooper appears determined to carry on the momentum gained in last week's 30-23 ITM Cup win over Waikato.
There is also a good chance, although he would never admit it, that he wants a bit of revenge from last year when Northland trekked south to knock Taranaki over in Cooper's first game back in charge.
It was a night to forget for Taranaki after they gifted the visitors a couple of intercept tries as they struggled to work through a number of new combinations.
There should be no such problems at Toll Stadium tonight, providing Tenderlink Taranaki can carry on the form they showed in the second half against Waikato.
Northland can, however, be a difficult side to play at home, particularly when they are afforded the chance to build up a lead.
What Taranaki will not want to repeat is the start they produced against Waikato when they struggled for early possession, were too slow to organise their defensive line and failed to bring enough defenders up in their kick chase.
Once they fixed those two areas they were a different side and one that was certainly not afraid to use the ball.
"The boys worked really, really hard before we played Waikato and to get rewarded with a win, it's just lifted everyone up," Cooper said.
"Our hardest work, and I've told the players this, is not on the field, it's in the classroom and understanding how we want to play and then sticking to it. That's what we want tomorrow."
While it would be ideal for Cooper to use his bench early to give several key players a break before Sunday's match against Auckland, he said the introduction of the subs would be entirely dependant on how the game was going for the visitors.
"We need to really plan to win the games and if we can manage the players too, then that's a bonus."
Northland's set piece has been inconsistent in their two matches to date, although Cooper dismissed speculation that they would be vulnerable.
"If we go in with thoughts like that then we will come second, like we did last year. So we rate their pack and we rate their line breakers," he said.
Two of Northland's most effective line breakers are, of course, former All Blacks wing Rene Ranger and captain Jared Payne, while wing Lachie Munro is also more than capable of finding holes in the opposition defence.
Payne has spoken this week about his side's need to be more accurate and improve their decision making, two areas that cost Northland in their 30-22 loss to Championship side Manawatu on Saturday.
The Blues utility, who is off to Ulster at the end of the ITM Cup, will again shoulder most of the responsibility for organising Northland's backline from fullback.
Northland coach Adriaan Ferris has named former North Harbour fullback Jack McPhee at first five-eighth, while Ranger will play at centre.
Northland's strength looks very much in their backs, with Taranaki looking to have a clear edge up front.
Taranaki captain Craig Clarke dismissed any concerns about tonight's 8.05pm kick-off, saying they pushed their normal night game schedule back half an hour.
Auckland's Shaun Elliot will control tonight's match.
Taranaki utility forward Kane Barrett has been ruled out of his side's ITM Cup campaign after he suffered a recurrence of a rib injury.
Barrett, who made six appearances for Taranaki last season, broke a rib earlier this season. He returned for Coastal in their semifinal loss to New Plymouth Old Boys but suffered another break.
Northland: Jared Payne, Lachie Munro, Rene Ranger, Aaron Bancroft, Bryce Heem, Jack McPhee, Rhyan Caine, Cam Eyre, Dan Pryor, Joel McKenty, Bryce Williams, Mark Burman, Scott Vessey, Ross Wright, Justin Davies. Reserves, Tim Dow, Jamie Corsi, Dan Falefa, Cam Goodhue, Wayne Ngaluafe, Ash Moeke, Simon Munro, Aterea Davis.
Taranaki: Andre Taylor, Waisake Naholo, Isaia Tuifua, Jayden Hayward, Jackson Ormond, Beauden Barrett, Tyson Keats, Samuela Vunisa, Scott Waldrom, Ben Souness, Craig Clarke (captain), James Broadhurst, Michael Bent, Laurence Corlett, Carl Carmichael. Reserves, Mahonri Schwalger, Shane Cleaver, Jason Eaton, Chris Walker, Brett Goodin, Jack Cameron, George Pisi, Willie Ioane.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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