Waikato are not out of national provincial premiership rugby relegation territory yet, but next week is likely to be all about their first Ranfurly Shield game since 2007.
The narrow 20-19 ITM Cup victory over championship team Tasman at Waikato Stadium on Thursday night did earn some breathing space for the Mooloos, taking them up to fifth place and three points clear of Bay of Plenty, but Hawke's Bay still have the chance to draw level, or go ahead with a victory, at home to Otago tonight.
Remaining for Waikato are premiership high flyers and Ranfurly Shield holders Taranaki in New Plymouth on Wednesday night, championship leaders Counties-Manukau in Pukekohe next Saturday and then Hawke's Bay at home a week later.
But it is the Taranaki game that looms as the sole focus for Waikato this week and not just because it is the next one.
"The Shield's very, very special and we haven't had a go at it for five years," Waikato head coach Chris Gibbes said on Thursday night after picking up the four competition points that took his team to 14 points from seven games, thanks to their third win of the season.
"I don't think you can go down there and worry about competition points or the Shield - we've just got to go down and play and if we're good enough, we're good enough."
To be fair Gibbes and his team had been totally focused on the Tasman match and had had little time to start thinking about next Wednesday night at the time, but Waikato have a proud Shield history and have already taken the prized log of wood off Taranaki once before - in 1996.
"But it's a Ranfurly Shield challenge and why wouldn't you have a crack," Gibbes said.
Waikato last won the Ranfurly Shield in 2007 when they took it off North Harbour with a record score and lost it the following week to Canterbury. Waikato has not had a challenge since although Waikato are fourth on the list of Shield successes.
Shield challenges are all about attacking and that might just be what is needed to spark Waikato's game, which has stuttered along with patches of good stuff mixed with a fair dose of inaccuracy and the mediocre.
Waikato could do with getting a few injured forwards back, having lost Jack Lam, Marty Holah, Romana Graham, Marcel Cummings-Toone and Toby Smith at various stages of the season, but that seems unlikely for all but the latter two front-rowers.
Lock Chris Middleton added to those woes by coming off the field with an ankle injury on Thursday night and first-five Piers Francis did likewise.
"We've had a few injuries this year and the team's getting used to it. I think part of what you saw out there tonight [Thursday] was a bit of tiredness as a result.
"Not making any excuses, Tasman were very good and they really scrapped with us at times and took our legs at times, but we've got a well-deserved break now and for a couple of days we'll be able to regenerate, get our boys ready to go and head down to Taranaki next Tuesday and have a bit of a crack."
So what can this Waikato team, which has struggled often at the breakdowns, ball carriers too often getting isolated, and in getting runners over the gain line, bring to a Shield challenge?
"There's a lot of attitude and a lot of hard work that gets displayed when you play for the Shield and we have to bring that in spades.
"They're not going to be an easy team to crack down there on their home turf," Gibbes said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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