Season starts now for rampant Wellington as captain Brad Shields rejoins the fun
He's watched from the sidelines in pain, then awe, as his Wellington Lions swept aside allcomers this past month.
Now, captain Brad Shields is bursting to return to Westpac Stadium against Northland on Thursday night, with a hint of nerves despite his side being assured as top qualifiers for next week's championship playoffs.
"That's where we've tripped up the last couple of years, in semifinals. We've got to put our best foot forward against the Taniwha who'll be chomping at the bit to try and get a home semi," Shields said.
"We want to go into the semis and finals with a bit of confidence and we can't really afford to slip up."
It all starts here for Wellington, despite their breathtaking Mitre 10 Cup season thus far. They've won eight from nine, scored 371 points, collected a four-try bonus point in every match and beaten the top-two premiership sides including a 60-pointer against Canterbury.
If they don't notch three straight home wins from here and book a return to the top division, the blockbusting deeds of ball running forwards Asafo Aumua and Alex Fidow, among others, will fade from the memory a bit faster.
For now these rising stars are worth trumpeting for No 8 Shields who suffered medial ligament damage in his left knee in their only defeat to Tasman a month ago, and enjoyed the team's wild ride since.
"It's awesome because in the past we've had a tier of players that are expected to do the job and not much depth. We're starting to grow and build that depth, and if you do something wrong in the game then your spot could be taken so there's that edge.
"You always want to push yourself a bit harder and the way we train is at a high intensity and we work hard for each other in the game. Big ball carriers and big tacklers, we've got them lining up."
Indeed, the Wellington team photo posted online this week could barely fit every player in the frame. There were 40 of them, with a front row stretching well across Rugby League Park, such is the depth available to new coach Chris Gibbes who mixed and matched his starting lineups.
Some fresher faces did the job against Southland last Saturday, a 61-12 win, and Gibbes rolled out 11 changes in his strongest lineup yet to face second-placed Northland.
All Blacks flanker Vaea Fifita is back along with Shields and fellow Hurricanes Wes Goosen and James Blackwell who return from injury. Wings Julian Savea and Ben Lam also saunter back from a week off, and Gibbes will demand a performance worthy of the championship favourites despite them having nothing to gain on the ladder.
The Derren Witcombe-coached Northland have familiar names dotted through their ranks and have been impressive, but can still miss the playoffs if they don't snare a bonus point from Wellington. They sit two points ahead of Bay of Plenty but with Manawatu and Otago also in striking distance.
AT A GLANCE
Wellington v Northland at Westpac Stadium, Wellington, 7.35pm Thursday
Wellington: Trent Renata, Julian Savea, Wes Goosen, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Ben Lam, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Kemara Hauiti-Parapara, Brad Shields (captain), Mateaki Kafatolu, Vaea Fifita, James Blackwell, Sam Lousi, Alex Fidow, Sitiveni Paongo, Tolu Fahamokioa. Reserves: Asafo Aumua, Vince Sakaria, Joe Apikotoa, Will Mangos, James Tuiatua, Carlos Price, Regan Verney, Malo Tuitama.
Northland: Solomon Alaimalo, Jordan Hyland, Rene Ranger, Jack Goodhue, Jone Macilai, Dan Hawkins, Sam Nock, Matt Matich, Dan Pryor, Murray Douglas, Tim Bond, Joshua Goodhue, Ropate Rinakama, Matt Moulds (captain), Ross Wright. Reserves: Jordan Olsen, Phil Kite, Chris Apoua, Jack Ram, Kara Pryor, Emil Pittman, Peter Breen, Tamati Tua.