Tawera Kerr-Barlow has never played in a Ranfurly Shield challenge before but he announced on Thursday night he is back - fit and in form again - for Waikato's first tilt at the log in five years.
Kerr-Barlow, 22, has been one of the big movers in New Zealand rugby this season with his performances at halfback for the Chiefs drawing the interest of the All Blacks selectors.
But early in the NPC premiership campaign he looked in need of a break after an already lengthy season.
His sharpness of foot and pass that had been eye-catching in Super Rugby seemed to have dulled. But he has been hampered by a niggly hamstring injury suffered at the start of the season that opened with a win over North Harbour.
"This game [against Tasman on Thursday night] has been the only game where it's felt really 100 per cent," Kerr-Barlow said.
"It might have been a hundred before that but I haven't felt it until this week.
"But I look forward to playing for Waikato and I've had as much passion from the start [of the NPC] as I had from the beginning of Super Rugby."
Kerr-Barlow has come off the bench in Waikato's last two matches early in the second half, on Thursday replacing an in-form Brendon Leonard at halftime. Now he has the shield challenge against Taranaki next Wednesday night in New Plymouth, if Manawatu do not lift it today, firmly in his sights.
"I've never had a Ranfurly Shield challenge so it would be one of the highlights of my career so far, even getting to play for the shield.
"Hopefully I'll get a decent amount of time on the paddock and just go and run my heart out all over again."
Kerr-Barlow was exhausted at the end of the 20-19 win over Tasman despite only playing the second half, saying that because he knew he had just 40 minutes to perform he wanted to "empty the tanks" in that time.
"It was good to get a good chunk of time out there. You blow the lungs out and then catch a second wind, but I'm just happy to be out there playing footy.
"We did a promo at Lone Star and I was out the back, doing the coleslaw and watching some of those fellas running around all night and I'm real thankful I play rugby. There was one guy there who was like the third chef or something he was just going like the clappers all night.
"I said, ‘Mate, I hope you get well paid because you're amazing'."
He believes Waikato's win on Thursday night was needed to get themselves back on track but admits there is still plenty of room for improvement.
"We're going to have to get a lot better for when we go down to Taranaki, but hopefully they hold on to the shield and we'll get a big crack at it down there.
"But we'll enjoy this win, we haven't had that many this year, and hopefully we can take a bit of momentum into the 'Naki game," Kerr-Barlow said.
- Waikato Times
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