Rugby: Canterbury face short preparation

By Campbell Burnes

Scott Robertson
Scott Robertson

Canterbury will get their full Mitre 10 Cup squad together for only the first time tomorrow as outgoing coach Scott Robertson plots the defence of their Premiership title and a possible eighth crown in nine seasons.

The short five-day lead-in to their home opener against 2015 finalists Auckland will be challenging enough, but Canterbury must also get up to speed with the new breakdown laws.

Robertson, who swaps his Canterbury clipboard for a Crusaders one after this campaign, his ninth with the province and fourth as head coach, has named an extended squad. This includes injured lock Mitch Dunshea, who is out for the season, and his eight current All Blacks.

"It's the mental side of it, more than the physical, for some of the Super Rugby guys coming back in," Robertson said. "We've got Crusaders, but also Chiefs and Highlanders boys like Dominic Bird, Tom Sanders, Siate Tokolahi, Rob Thompson and Luke Whitelock.

"There's a bit of excitement around having Auckland first up at home. We need to be sharp around our preparation because we basically start on Monday.

You will see some new, young guys."

There will be no resting on laurels, even if the only significant losses from the 2015 group are outside back Nathaniel Apa, prop Nepo Laulala and goal-kicking ace Tom Taylor.

"We've had a good run [since 2008] and it's off the back of breaking every year down, but this group have their own goals to achieve."

That includes talented Chiefs loose forward Tom Sanders, wing Johnny McNicholl, who will join Welsh side Scarlets after the campaign, and young first five-eighths Jordie Barrett, fresh from a fine New Zealand under-20s campaign.

Interesting newcomers include Fijian-Crusaders No 10 Ben Volavola, former Auckland hooker Nathan Vella, 2015 Wanganui midfielder Poasa Waqanibau, former Fijian prop Lee Roy Atalifo, and former England under-20s flyer Nathan Earle.

New Zealand Rugby do not promote the draw as a separate Premiership-Championship competition, but that does not change the approach of the coaches, not when a clutch of Championship sides upset their higher Premiership rivals in 2015.

Robertson recalls, in particular, how North Harbour pushed them 17-10 last season and shocked them in 2014 in one of the great upsets in NPC history.

"There are hard games every week," he said. "Every team wants to knock Canterbury off. We know that and prepare accordingly. We've also got a Shield challenge [on September 28] if Waikato can truck through the first couple."

Robertson will watch a stack of rugby as he looks to fill the few remaining gaps in the Crusaders roster but also keep a close eye on trends and how his opposition are coping with the new laws.

"You've got to be quite smart and tactical How do you [legally] slow the ball down? Do you go through the middle or out wide?"

- Herald on Sunday

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