Whetu Douglas says the Ranfurly Shield gives Waikato an extra edge for the NPC
Whetu Douglas believes holding the Ranfurly Shield gives Waikato an extra edge for the National Provincial Championship.
The Mooloo men finished a disappointing sixth in last year's premiership, but won the Log o' Wood in their final match of 2015 by winning 36-30 at Hawke's Bay in Napier last October.
Waikato have been tested in three Shield challenges in pre-season, against Thames Valley, King Country and Wanganui.
Douglas, who was co-captain with Brad Weber in 2015, started in all three at No 8, as the Mooloo men eased to 83-13, 55-0 and 32-12 victories.
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But the 25-year-old University back rower said their preparation matched that of an NPC game, with Waikato's 2016 campaign beginning against Tasman in Blenheim on Sunday.
"The group's come together really close. With the Shield matches that we've had, it's meant we've been together longer in a bit more of a professional environment," he said.
Waikato's first defence in the NPC comes next week when they host North Harbour at Waikato Stadium.
"In Shield matches, in your preparation, it's similar to the competition [NPC]. You have to be on point," added Douglas.
"The weather during the Shield matches wasn't the best, so there was a big ask for the forwards. We had to roll our sleeves up."
Douglas has become a key figure in Waikato's forward pack since his debut in 2013.
He's expected to win his 28th cap for the province in Blenheim, and he's confident the squad is closer after another year together, with Waikato's new recruits said to be settling well into Sean Botherway's squad.
"In our preparation, we're still trying to find our edge, especially with the group coming together. You tend to play more for each other when you know your brother beside you," said Douglas.
"We're probably a bit tighter. It's the same guys who've had another year together and the new guys are fitting in really well. We've got a good thing going for this season."
Waikato's final hit-out in pre-season saw them lose 21-12 against Taranaki in Inglewood last Friday, with a 26-man squad travelling south-west.
But ahead of the NPC's opening round, their Super Rugby players have slowly been integrated into the squad, with the likes of Damian McKenzie, Atu Moli, Stephen Donald and Shaun Stevenson all present for the team's official launch in Hamilton on Tuesday.
Donald was announced as Waikato's captain for 2016, after returning to the province last year following stints in England and Japan.
Waikato will initially be without midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown, who was called up to the All Blacks last week.
"We've talked about their return quite a lot and we wanted them to come back and add to the environment, and not have to pick the new guys up," said Douglas, who's confident they can achieve a top-four finish for the first time since 2011.
And with the Shield currently an added incentive for visiting sides, Waikato's games in Hamilton will have that extra edge Douglas says they're striving for to improve their performances in the NPC.
"Holding on to the Shield - that's quite obvious," he said. "And semi-finals is a goal I don't think we're punching too high for. Creating an edge through the pack is something we're going to look for weekly."
Waikato will name their squad for Tasman on Friday afternoon.