Taranaki and Northland get the ITM Cup into full swing at Yarrow Stadium on Thursday, where both sides will be keen to start well.
Taranaki and Northland get the ITM Cup into full swing under Thursday night lights at Yarrow Stadium, where both sides will be desperate to kick-off their campaign with a win.
With a new coach in the form of ex-Hurricanes boss Colin Cooper and a wealth of newly signed players at his disposal, Taranaki enter this opening round match as favourites. However, Northland hold the psychological edge having beaten the Amber and Blacks 29-16 last year.
Injuries haven't helped the Taniwha leading up to this game though and the visitors head to New Plymouth minus key personnel, with the trio Matt Clutterbuck, Derek Carpenter and Justin Davies all long-term casualties.
Good news for Northland is the availability of skipper and full-back Jared Payne, who passed a last fitness test to take his place in the starting line-up. Northland coach Bryce Woodward also named 102-game veteran David Holwell at fly-half. The 35-year-old will play outside scrum-half Luke Hamilton, and All Black wing Rene Ranger will start at centre after missing the cut to travel across the Tasman to face the Wallabies on Saturday.
Ranger, along with Payne, Lachie Munro and the veteran Holwell, form the nucleus of competent back-line but it is up front yet again where the Northern boys will be found wanting.
Taranaki appeals as one of the dark horses this year and winning their home games will be crucial, starting with Northland and then Tasman in the opening two weeks of what will be a much-anticipated season. The 'Naki haven't made the top five since 2004 and have finished eighth for the past three seasons. However, the players and management are positive that 2010 is going to be Taranaki's year.
After eight years with the Hurricanes, Cooper told the The Dominion Post he's had to adjust to less experienced players, but it's the teacher who's been blown away by his pupils.
“Coming out of Super 14, where its full-time professional players, I come here and watch these guys train at 6am in the morning and then go and do their work, or they work all day and do their gym work at the end of the day, so it's a totally different situation,” he said.
“It's back to reality as a coach.”
Cooper's first task as Taranaki coach won't be easy against a Northland outfit that have the capability from time to time of causing an upset. And with rain predicted on Thursday, points might be a bit harder to collect.
It's for this reason that Cooper has included all of Taranaki's major off-season signings, although former Canterbury lock James Broadhurst has been bracketed with Leon Power after he took a heavy knock to a calf muscle in last Friday's 27-24 pre-season loss to Bay of Plenty.
Six of Taranaki's starting line-up will be on debut – eight in all if you count the uncapped Barrett brothers (Kane and Beauden) on the bench. However, all of the starting new caps have featured for other provinces in recent seasons.
Hurricanes scrum-half Tyson Keats returns after he missed the Bay Of Plenty hit-out after taking a knock to his knee the previous week against Waikato, while Shane Cleaver gets the nod at loosehead prop ahead of Carl Carmichael and Michael Bent returns to the tighthead.
There is also a change in the loose forwards, with Chris Walker picked at openside, Jarred Hoeata at blindside and Ben Souness moved to number eight – a combination not tried extensively in any of Taranaki's three pre-season matches.
Walker's inclusion comes at the expense of Samuela Vunisa, who drops to the bench.
“Our defence hasn't been where I want it to be, so know I've got a pretty good defensive unit with those three loosies,” Cooper said after naming the side.
“We'll see how that combination goes because we have got guys to come off the bench to provide more of an attacking game if we have to.”
Prediction: This should be Taranaki's for the taking, but we don't expect Northland to go down without a fight. Taranaki to win by nine points.
Taranaki: 15 Kurt Baker, 14 Andre Taylor, 13 George Pisi, 12 Jayden Hayward, 11 David Smith, 10 Willie Ripia, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Ben Souness, 7 Chris Walker, 6 Jarrad Hoeata, 5 Craig Clarke (c), 4 James Broadhurst/Leon Power, 3 Michael Bent, 2 Laurence Corlett, 1 Shane Cleaver.
Replacements: 16 Timo Tutavaha, 17 Carl Carmichael, 18 Kane Barrett, 19 Samuela Vunisa, 20 Brett Goodin, 21 Isaia Tuifua, 22 Beauden Barrett.
Northland: 15 Jared Payne (c), 14 Simon Munro, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Aaron Bancroft, 11 Lachie Munro, 10 David Holwell, 9 Luke Hamilton, 8 Cameron Eyre, 7 Sam Barker, 6 Dean Budd, 5 Mark Burman, 4 Pat O'Connor, 3 Bronson Murray, 2 Mikaele Tuu'u, 1 Matt Wallis.
Replacements: 16 Tim Dow, 17 Paea Fa'anunu, 18 Roy Griffin, 19 Cameron Goodhew, 20 Rhyan Caine, 21 Iwi Hauraki, 22 Bryce Heem.
Date: Thursday, 29 July
Venue: Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth
Referee: Garratt Williamson