Preview: Taranaki v Counties Manukau

Date published: August 13 2014

This year's ITM Cup kicks off at Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth where Taranaki will host Counties Manukau.

This year's ITM Cup kicks off at Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth where Taranaki host Ranfurly Shield holders Counties Manukau Steelers.

Both sides head into this clash brimming with confidence after securing morale-boosting victories in their last pre-season matches.

Taranaki secured a 24-5 win over Aucklanad on Thursday and Counties claimed a hard-fought 21-19 victory over Bay of Plenty on the same day.

Taranaki scored only 14 tries during last season's campaign – Their worst attacking record since 1921 – and their coach Colin Cooper has bolstered his back-line by signing Chiefs centre Charlie Ngatai and former Blues utility back Marty McKenzie.

The Amber and Blacks will also be boosted by the return of utility back James Marshall, who is fit again after missing the entire 2013 campaign after undergoing hip surgery.

Marshall is set to captain Taranaki until regular skipper utility forward Kane Barrett overcomes his ongoing concussion problems.

Up front, Cooper has also brought in Blues front-row Angus Ta'avao, who will strenthen Taranaki's set-piece alongside Chiefs hooker Rhys Marshall and fellow prop Mitchell Graham.

Counties coach Tana Umaga has picked most of the players that helped his side to secure the Ranfurly Shield last season.

All eyes will be on Crusaders flanker Jordan Taufua, who packs down at number eight in his first game for the Pukekohe based side alongside fellow debutants Pauliasi Manu (prop) and Dan Hyatt (flank) in the run-on side.

Counties were surprise semi-finalists in 2014 and will look to build on that performance by hitting the ground running in this encounter.

Their strength lies in their backs and Umaga has opted for experience with full-back Sherwin Stowers, wing Frank Halai, inside centre Bundee Aki and captain and scrum-half Augustine Pulu all included in the run-on side.

Taranaki head coach Colin Cooper has named a powerful side to take on the Steelers in what's set to be a demanding opening fixture for both teams.

Five new faces feature in the starting XV with former Canterbury prop Mitchell Graham, Blues prop Angus Ta'avao, former Tasman lock Riki Hoeata, All Blacks 7s representative Marty McKenzie and Chiefs midfielder Charlie Ngatai all on debut for the amber and blacks.

Waisake Naholo will start in his 20th game for Taranaki, earning his blazer in front of a home crowd. James Marshall has been appointed co-captain alongside Kane Barrett for the 2014 ITM Cup season as Barrett remains sidelined with concussion issues.

The teams:

Taranaki: 15 Codey Rei, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 James Marshall (c), 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Marty McKenzie, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Berny Hall, 6 Mitchell Crosswell, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Riki Hoeata, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Mitchell Graham
Replacements: 16 Timo Tutavaha, 17 Sione Lea, 18 Leighton Price, 19 Doug Tietjens, 20 Warwick Lahmert, 21 Jackson Ormond, 22 Beaudein Waaka

Counties Manukau: 15 Sherwin Stowers, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Sam Vaka, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Toni Pulu, 10 Ahsee Tuala, 9 Augustine Pulu (c), 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Maama Vaipulu, 6 Dan Hyatt, 5 Jimmy Tupou, 4 Ronald Raaymakers, 3 Jarrod Firth, 2 Suliasi Taufalele, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Sione Anga'aelangi, 17 Sean Bagshaw, 18 Viliami Rarasea, 19 Onosa'i Auva'a, 20 Kane Hancy, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Rey Lee-Lo.

Date: Thursday, August 14
Kick-off: 19:35 local (08:35 BST, 07:35 GMT)
Venue: Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth