Taranaki bring Angus Ta'avou back from Australia
Title winning prop Angus Ta'avao was the big surprise in the Taranaki rugby squad when it was named to compete in the Mitre 10 Cup.
Ta'avao's last appearance for Taranaki was in the 2015 national provincial semifinal loss to Canterbury before he left for Sydney to take up a contract with the Waratahs.
His return hints at a possible link up with Taranaki coach Colin Cooper when he takes over at the Chiefs, especially with Ta'avao signing on back in New Zealand for two years.
Cooper emphasised last week the importance of having a powerful front row for the Mitre 10 Cup campaign given the loss of several experienced loose forwards and Ta'avao's inclusion adds to the depth at tighthead where he can also turn to Hurricanes prop Mike Kainga.
Ta'avoa missed Taranaki's first pre-season hit-out when they snuck past Bay of Plenty 19-17 in Te Awamutu but was involved in last Friday night's halves against Counties Manukau and the All Blacks.
Taranaki were predictably caned 57-7 by the All Blacks and also lost 28-7 to Counties Manukau, although the latter result has to be put into context given Cooper afforded a number of young players an opportunity before their Mitre 10 Cup campaign gets underway against Waikato in New Plymouth on Saturday.
A number of first choice players, including co-captain Charlie Ngatai, did not play in either match while the squad will only fully gather on Monday when the likes of Crusaders wing Seta Tamanivalu returns.
That leaves Cooper and assistant coach Willie Rickards just five days to prepare for Waikato, although most of the top provincial squads are in the same position.
Taranaki's squad was largely predictable, although the inclusion teenage former New Zealand secondary schools first five-eighth Ciarahn Matoe was a surprise.
Matoe is joined in the squad by fellow Chiefs academy member Tom Florence who gets his opportunity after the loss of experienced loose forwards Mitchell Crosswell and Mitchell Brown.
Cooper has named Ngatai and New Zealand Maori and Blues lock Leighton Price as co-captains, with the latter shaping as an important figure in the second row where he will be joined by the likes of Fin Hoeata, veteran Leon Power and former Waikato utility forward Bard Tucker as options.
Cooper will be hoping the likes of loose forwards Toa Halafihi and Lachlan Boshier can go through the campaign injury free while there is genuine excitement about the prospects of Spotswood United No 8 Pita-Gus Sowakula who shapes as a player on the rise.
Sowakula is a combative player who reads the game well and can easily play off the back of the scum of at blindside flanker.
There are plenty of options throughout the backline with depth in all positions and real competition for players amongst a large group of Super Rugby players.
A possible starting backline could begin with Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi at halfback with Stephen Perofeta, Ngatai, Tamanivalu, Sean Wainui, Manasa Matele and Marty McKenize outside him.
"Our expectation is to make the top four and earn a home play-off," Cooper said. "We've got a great squad of experience and youth and a mix of Super Rugby and Taranaki club players. It's going to be exciting watching this team come together and proudly represent Taranaki."
At a glance
Taranaki rugby squad
Forwards: Mitchell Graham, Jared Proffit, Reuben O'Neill, Asaeli Sorovaki, Mike Kainga, Angus Ta'avao, Ricky Riccitelli, Sione Lea, Donald Maka, Leon Power, Leighton Price, Fin Hoeata, Brad Tucker, Pita-Gus Sowakula, Adrian Wyrill, Lachlan Boshier, Toa Halafihi, Tom Florence.
Backs: Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Kylem O'Donnell, Logan Crowley, Marty McKenzie, Ciarahn Matoe, Stephen Perofeta, Charlie Ngatai, Johnny Fa'auli, Sean Wainui, Seta Tamanivalu, Manasa Mataele, Latu Vaeno, Declan O'Donnell, Beaudein Waaka.