Rugby: Wary hosts sense danger

By Anendra Singh

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Colin Cooper laughs and then there's a pregnant pause on the other end of the phone interview before he replies, carefully choosing his words.

The question that got the "fifty-something" Taranaki rugby coach going: "Is it true that if you win the Log of Wood, the chances are the fans will forgive and forget any other transgressions of a season?"

Years of high-octane coaching up to Super Rugby level has taught Cooper not to let his guard down even in a verbal joust with the media.

As much as Cooper is in a "really good space" in his home province these days, he hasn't lost his grip on realism.

"The Ranfurly Shield is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I've been chasing it for 30 years."

Having broken the 15-year Ranfurly Shield drought last year the former Hurricanes coach knows what it's like to turn up at Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth, every home game with some cowboy or other feigning disinterest in the hope of squeezing their itchy trigger finger when you least expect it.

Tomorrow it's the turn of the Hawke's Bay Magpies when the ITM Cup premiership match kicks off at 6.05pm.

That coach Craig Philpott and his assistant, Danny Lee, haven't had a complete performance from their troops to date, despite a come-from-behind victory over Counties-Manukau in Napier, isn't going to lull the shield holders into a fall sense of security.

If anything, it is making them look over their shoulders.

"Craig and his group have been planning to take the shield off us for a whole year," Cooper says.

One gets the eerie impression the Taranaki stable went straight to the drawing board not long after August 29, last year.

The players may have gone into a summer hibernation, except for those in the Super Rugby campaign, but the the think tank were already anticipating the mood of about 18,000 parochial fans from the dairy farming region comfortable with the way Taranaki had clipped the wing span of a Magpies outfit to the tune of 29-11 with former co-coaches Peter Russell and Tom Coventry at the helm.

For all Cooper and his clan care, the Magpies mob arriving in town tomorrow are calling their bluff on the heels of so-so performances to catch them on the hop.

"That's what the shield does so we're planning and preparing as best as we can."

To put the hosts' mind set in perspective, Cooper is resorting to some reverse psychology.

"We're not going out to defend the shield. Oh no, we're going out to take it off Hawke's Bay," says the man who was a Taranaki loosie in his heyday.

Suffice it to say the TAB have made their point - Taranaki are favourites at $1.20 to lift the shield again with a Magpies victory paying out $4.20.

Cooper emphasises that in their successful defence against ITM Cup Championship side Tasman last Saturday, his men did not adopt a bunker mentality when leading 44-40 but grunted and snorted their way to another try for the 49-40 result.

"It brings a different mindset and a lot more pressure and excitement."

He prefers to employ a philosophy of different strokes for different folks, though.

The Mike Coman-led Magpies, he believes, will adopt a different approach from Tasman.

Having absorbed everything the Tana Umaga-coached Counties Manukau team threw at them last Friday night at McLean Park, the Magpies clawed their way back after another sluggish start to the first half.

In naming his team last night, Philpott revealed Gillies Kaka would come in at fullback and Nick McLennan would assume the mantle of winger with injured All Black Zac Guildford out for possibly four weeks.

Marvin Karawana shuffles on to the bench.

"We'll just focus on ourselves," Philpott said, adding they would look at Taranaki's first two games which sees the shield holders sitting third on the premiership table but on equal 10 points with Canterbury after beating Bay of Plenty Steamers 37-22 in week one.

Needless to say, he and Lee aren't reading too much into the Tasman display, either.

The Magpies know Taranaki will not want to haemorrhage 40 points again.

Cooper attests to that wholeheartedly.

In fact, he goes a step further convinced the Magpies won't let them employ the running tactics they afforded Counties Manukau.

Throw into that a grotty forecast of torrential rain and galeforce winds and you start getting a clearer picture of forward packs retaining possession in a game of arm wrestling.

"Our ruck defensively needs to improve," Cooper reveals, adamant the Magpies won't allow them any elbow space.

"It'll be a different approach to the Tasman," he reckons, mindful the Magpies will be more disruptive in the set pieces.

However, Cooper believes his squad have the depth and calibre to make adequate adjustments to suit different styles this winter.

Taranaki are humming with players keeping each other on their toes for starting berth.

"It's good for the team and everyone is available except for [utility back] Andre Taylor."

Among the "tweaks" to the team is the return of captain Craig Clarke for his first game of the season after injuring his knee in the Chiefs' semifinal - although he soldiered on in the final for the franchise's maiden Super Rugby title over the Sharks from South Africa in Hamilton.

He replaces James Broadhurst who drops to the bench.

Former North Harbour halfback Chris Smylie comes in for his first game after missing the Super Rugby season with a shoulder injury.

Former All Black Jarrad Hoeata returns to the bench to make way for Kane Barrett, older brother of Beauden, while Scott Waldrom comes in for Chris Walker.

The other change is on the wing where Jackson Ormond comes in for Frazier Climo who has sprained his ankle.

Touted once to be a potential All Black coach, Cooper is savouring the enjoyment of everything his whanau bring in his hometown.

"I have seven grandchildren and children so I made a choice about being close to my family," says the man who retired from rugby in the early 90s to take up a full-time management role.

In 1999 he became Taranaki coach after Jed Rowlands was appointed to succeed Graham Henry at the Auckland Blues.

In 2001, he guided the New Zealand Colts side for a season and in 2002 was the assistant coach at the Crusaders.

Following the dismissal of Graham Mourie as Hurricanes coach, Cooper was appointed to take over the franchise and came to prominence by guiding them to the semifinals in two of his three seasons in charge.

In 2005 he also coached one of the All Blacks trial teams and the Junior All Blacks.

He stepped down as Hurricanes coach following the 2010 Super 14 season.

"We [Hurricanes] made semifinals but we were not good enough to win," he says of the disappointment of not nailing the No1 rugby coaching job in the land, if not the world.

He contemplated an overseas stint with wife Lynette but daughter Angie, a former teacher at Hastings Girls' High School, returned from her big OE to convince him to gravitate to New Plymouth again.

"I haven't closed those [return to Super Rugby, overseas stint] doors yet," Cooper says of returning to big time coaching some day.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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