By WYNNE GRAY
If results reflect preparation, then Canterbury should be comfortable with the images they are seeing as they work towards their NPC semifinal against Auckland on Saturday.
Since their solitary stumble against North Harbour early last month, Canterbury have increased their tempo in victories against Otago, Counties Manukau, Wellington, Taranaki, Auckland and Waikato.
As the pressure has gone on, Canterbury have responded. They repelled a final quartet of difficult Ranfurly Shield challenges, churning out strong games with compelling consistency.
Those sudden-death matches have given Canterbury a solid pedigree for the knockout finals format.
"It's not going to be anything new. But we've got the knowledge that we've got something already in the bank," coach Steve Hansen said.
"It's zero for zero now, we start again, the rest of the competition is history."
That may be, but teams facing Canterbury have to find some way of breaking down the best provincial side in New Zealand.
Hansen dislikes giving much away, as he showed with his scheme to delay team announcements until shortly before kickoff.
But he did concede his side had played "well enough" against Waikato on Saturday, though they had not been as committed as they wanted to be for the entire match.
Plans would stay the same for the semifinal. All Black lock Chris Jack would stick with twice-daily conditioning visits to the gym and would miss the playoffs unless someone was injured.
Auckland have only a few injuries to consider. Centre Eroni Clarke and lock Ali Williams missed the victory overCounties Manukau and could be doubtful for the playoff.
Coach Wayne Pivac accepted that the exciting work of the rearranged backline had to be judged against the poor defence.
"There is no way we will get the same latitude against Canterbury," he said. "But it was a day when our guys enjoyed themselves and that should have some benefit."
Auckland would have accepted a Friday night game even if it had meant a shorter turnaround than they wanted. But there was no problem about a Saturday afternoon semifinal, that was Canterbury's choice, they were top qualifier and had won the right to set the schedule.
Though the timing of the game was irrelevant, Pivac was a little envious of the all-round strength in the Canterbury squad.
"They have been putting that team together over a number of years, you only have to look through their bench to see that," he said.
"They have shown they can do the business and the Waikato result put ours into perspective."
Auckland lost their Ranfurly Shield challenge, a game which doubled as their NPC match, 38-10 a fortnight ago. Hansen felt Auckland had played quite well in that match.
Pivac said his team had been encouraged by the first half of that game, but knew they had to go the full distance this weekend.
"We are a young side but want to give a good account of ourselves. This will be like a grand final for us - if we win, then we will worry about the final later."
2001 NPC schedule/scoreboard
NPC Division One squads
By WYNNE GRAY