Preview: Air NZ Cup, Part Two

Date published: August 1 2008

It's Round One of the Air New Zealand Cup, and with Northland and Bay of Plenty seeing off Waikato and Tasman in the tournament openers on Thursday – expect the unexpected again this weekend.

It's Round One of the Air New Zealand Cup, and with Northland and Bay of Plenty seeing off Waikato and Tasman in the tournament openers on Thursday – expect the unexpected again this weekend.

The usual suspects will contend for the title, but don't be surprised if another fairytale run – a la Hawke's Bay 2007 – will again capture the imagination of an unlikely provincial city.

There will be plenty of questions that need answering this season:

How will the provincial players and coaches cope under the ELV's for the first time?

Will the crowds show up?

Will the absence of the All Blacks and overseas defections even up the competition?

Will it be business as usual for the Super 14 franchise bases or will the minnows roar?

Can Auckland retain the Ranfurly Shield?

And arguably most importantly, will their place on the table dictate some teams' survival next year?

The 2008 domestic season is as intriguing as ever.

The two Friday games see Taranaki host North Harbour in New Plymouth and Wellington at home to Hawke's Bay.

On Saturday, Canterbury face Manawatu in Christchurch, while Southland host Otago in what is expected to be a sizling derby encounter in chilly Invercargill.

Defending champions Auckland kick-start their campaign on Sunday when they face Counties Manukau in Pukekohe.

Taranaki v North Harbour

Often slow out of the blocks, North Harbour will need to hit their 2008 campaign running if they want to banish the memories of last year.

After a disappointing season, North Harbour are primed to become a genuine contender for the last eight – starting with an away fixture against last year's quarter-finalists, Taranaki.

Due to a poor finish last season, the 2008 draw also does them no favours. Harbour have to contend with heavyweights Wellington, Waikato, Canterbury and Auckland in round robin fixtures, which is why a win in New Plymouth is a must.

But they will have to get past bruising lock/loose forward Nemia Soqeta who is a surprise inclusion in the starting XV for Taranaki.

Soqeta, a younger brother of former Taranaki loose forward Tomasi, will start on the blindside flank against North Harbour at Yarrow Stadium.

The 23-year-old 120kg Soqeta, is one of five newcomers in the Taranaki team. He joins centres Jonathan Spratt and Corey Niwa, Hurricanes pivot Willie Ripia and former Counties-Manukau number eight Taiasina Tuifua.

“He's earned his spot. He's been consistent and has a good work rate. He's physical, he can carry the ball well and can offload,” Kennedy said.

“He's a type of player who can commit the defence.”

Friday's game also sees the return to rugby of unwanted All Blacks lock Jason Eaton, who has been sidelined since playing for New Zealand Maori in the Pacific Nations Cup.

In an interesting move, Saracens lock Tom Ryder, who missed selection in the 26-strong squad named for the competition, has been included on the bench, after impressing in last week's hitout between a Taranaki XV and an invitation XV.

Ryder has won his spot on the reserves bench ahead of Leon Power.

“Tom was always part of our training group and he was outstanding last week. He's highly competitive and his ruck cleanouts were excellent. It was one of the best lock displays I've seen since arriving here,” said Kennedy.

“It was a tough call on Leon, who was outstanding in the line-outs against Wellington.”

Kennedy isn't bending the rules by playing Ryder.

All teams in the competition can go outside their selected 26 players if they wish.

The New Zealand Rugby Union funds 26 players for each union – any extras used must be funded by individual unions.

In this case, it's Ryder.

It's understood Taranaki has four players contracted outside the 26 – Ryder, Fijian winger Iliesa Keresoni, former Canterbury half-back Breydon Phillips and South African loose forward Francois Prinsloo.

Any one, or all four, can be used during the competition.

Prediction: This one is set to be a major arm-wrestle, but we feel North Harbour might be missing that extra muscle to see this opener through. Taranaki to win by three points.

Teams:

Taranaki: 15 Asalemo Malo, 14 Paul Perez, 13 Jonathan Spratt, 12 Corey Niwa, 11 Shayne Austin, 10 Willie Ripia, 9 Brett Goodin, 8 Taiasina Tuifua, 7 Scott Waldrom, 6 Nemia Soqeta, 5 Craig Clarke, 4 Jason Eaton, 3 Hamish Mitchell, 2 Laurence Corlett, 1 Tony Penn (captain).
Replacements: 16 James Annabell, 17 Shane Cleaver, 18 Tom Ryder, 19 Alex Tulou, 20 Brendan Haami, 21 Nathan Hohaia, 22 Jack Cameron.

North Harbour: 15 George Pisi, 14 Viliame Waqaseduadua, 13 Jamie Helleur, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Rudi Wulf, 10 Jimmy Gopperth (captain), 9 Chris Smylie, 8 Viliame Maafu, 7 Robbie Colhoun, 6 Tom Chamberlain, 5 Bernie Upton, 4 Chris Smith, 3 Sam Biddles, 2 James Hinchco, 1 James Afoa.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Michael Reid, 18 Richard Mayhew, 19 Malakai Ravulo, 20 Matt France, 21 Nafi Tuitavake, 22 Hayden Abercrombie.

Date: Friday, August 1
Venue: Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth
Date: 19:35 (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Kelvin Deaker
TMO: Garratt Williamson

Wellington v Hawke's Bay

The Magpies will be out to prove that 2007 was no flash in the pan when they open this year's Air New Zealand Cup campaign against Wellington.

After dominating the second division for much of the noughties they shocked everyone (and probably themselves) when they went all the way to an unlikely semi-final berth last season.

But after such lofty heights, second-year syndrome is likely to bite with the Magpies no longer having the element of surprise.

However if pre-season form is any indicator, the boys from the Bay should re-emerge in play-off calculations. They have comfortably disposed of North Harbour, Waikato and Taranaki in successive weeks.

They also enjoy the luxury of avoiding Auckland and North Harbour in the round-robin phase and with All Black in waiting, Hika Elliot and experienced half-back Danny Lee leading the way, the Magpies should give the Lions something to worry about.

Current form isn't the only reason for Wellington nerves ahead of their Air New Zealand Cup opener.

A year ago a team of unknowns from Hawke's Bay stunned their star-studded rivals with an 8-6 win in Napier.

Last year's game was marred by prop Clint Newland's controversial punch on All Black Neemia Tialata.

Neither Newland nor Tialata are playing, with Newland out for the season following a shoulder injury while Tialata is on All Blacks duty.

Under a new coach and hunting an elusive title since winning the NPC in 2000, the Lions will need to get their campaign off with a roar and plenty of bite.

Former All Black, Jamie Joseph, takes over the coaching reigns and his no-nonsense approach should result in a more disciplined Wellington side which has been guilty of