Rugby: Taranaki tough task to tackle

By Kelly Exelby

Swatting aside weakened Hawke's Bay and North Harbour lineups is one thing - now the Bay of Plenty Steamers pack will be asked the tough questions as the side to take on Ranfurly Shield holders Taranaki in the opening round of the ITM Cup provincial premiership tomorrow was rolled out yesterday.

The absence of All Blacks flanker Sam Cane and Chiefs' loosie Tanerau Latimer's start off the reserves' bench provide the biggest talking point, with the Bay of Plenty coaches hopeful at the start of the week that Cane would be released to play some part for the Steamers this weekend.

He missed out on the All Blacks 22 to take on the Wallabies at Eden Park on Saturday and won't be playing at Baypark Stadium tomorrow either.

Latimer and right wing Lelia Masaga arrived back from an enforced sabbatical this week following the Super rugby playoffs, with Masaga starting ahead of the unlucky Lance MacDonald but Latimer being reintegrated off the bench, with Warren Lippi-Smith getting the nod at blindside and former New Zealand schoolboys rep Carl Axtens holding off the challenge of Rotoiti's Jesse Action to claim the No 8 spot.

The backline is predictable and potent, although much of that potency will be dependent on whether their forwards can stand up to the challenge of a hardened Naki pack and deliver enough quality ball to threaten the gain line and give the Steamers their first win over Taranaki in six seasons.

There's a strong strand of thought that the teams likely to do the most damage in this season's ITM Cup are the ones with experience in key positions. By that count, Taranaki should again be pushing for for the top in the premier division, with coach Colin Cooper putting together the most experienced squad across the competition - the seven-team premier and championship divisions.

The loss of former Samoa captain Mahonri Schwalger hit Taranaki hard but Cooper has veteran hooker Laurence Corlett to fill the gap.

Chiefs prop Shane Cleaver's uncertain playing future because of ongoing concussion issues has been off-set by the arrival of Highlanders prop Chris King, who incredibly had been contemplating a season on the sidelines with cash-strapped Southland unable to find the bucks to contract him.

King is likely to team with Ireland-bound prop Michael Bent this weekend, with Bent hardly used by Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett during the Super rugby season.

It's in the second row where Taranaki's riches shine brightest, with Cooper calling on the Hurricanes pair of Jason Eaton and James Broadhurst, while Chiefs captain Craig Clarke will be available when he recovers from his knee injury. Throw in Jarrad Hoeata, who could also be used on the blindside or No 8, as well as Kane Barrett and Taranaki doesn't lack quality ball winners.

Another former All Black, openside flanker Scott Waldrom, will be itching for some minutes after being mostly used to hold the tackle bags by the title-winning Chiefs in Super Rugby.

Tyson Keats' departure to Italy has been offset by the arrival of Hurricanes halfback Chris Smylie, who should give All Black Beauden Barrett quick ball, with Barrett last year in stunning form for Taranaki, literally kicking Bay of Plenty off Yarrow Stadium when the sides met in the ITM Cup competition.

Outside Barrett, Cooper has an an embarrassment of riches with Jayden Hayward, Kurt Baker and All Black-in-waiting Andre Taylor itching to rack up the tries, something Taranaki struggled with in 2011 as they secured only two four-try bonus points, something which eventually cost them a spot in the final.

BOP Steamers

Greg Pleasants-Tate, Dan Perrin, Tristan Moran, Culum Retallick, Leon Power, Warren Lippi-Smith, Luke Braid, Carl Axtens, Jamie Nutbrown (capt), Chris Noakes, Jack Wilson, Phil Burleigh, Mafi Kefu, Lelia Masaga, Kendrick Lynn.

Reserves: John Pareanga, Mike Kainga, Keepa Mewett, Tanerau Latimer, Lewis Hancock, Nick McCashin, Lance MacDonald.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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